CELTIC wrapped up one of the most satisfying weeks in their recent history yesterday with a win over Hearts which moved them two points clear at the top of the SPL table.
Scorers: Celtic - Samaras (34)
Georgios Samaras followed up his midweek heroics in Moscow, where his late header earned Celtic a maiden Champions League victory on the road, by netting the only goal of a largely tepid affair in the autumnal sunshine in Glasgow’s east end.
It was a mortifying moment for Hearts debutant Peter Enckelman, the goalkeeper having been pressed into action when Jamie MacDonald was concussed in a sickening clash of heads with Charlie Mulgrew.
While it was some way short of the infamous howler he once perpetrated in a Birmingham City-Aston Villa derby match, Enckelman was badly at fault with the goal which condemned Hearts to a fourth defeat in their last five SPL fixtures.
It might have been very different had 17-year-old Callum Paterson not fluffed a glorious chance to put the Gorgie men ahead just nine minutes before Samaras scored, but Hearts were simply unable to take advantage of any post-European hangover evident in Celtic’s display.
The early loss of MacDonald would prove a major setback for Hearts, given the culpability of his replacement Enckelman in the concession of Celtic’s goal. Shortly before suffering the injury which saw him carried off on a stretcher, MacDonald had shown good reactions to touch a Mulgrew shot wide when the home side threatened for the first time in an opening spell which was evenly contested.
Hearts showed no immediate signs of being disrupted by the enforced change of goalkeeper as they looked threatening on the counter attack on more than one occasion.
Paterson, again handed the central striker role in McGlynn’s 4-2-3-1 formation, should have given the visitors the lead from one such raid in the 25th minute. Andrew Driver seized possession from the dilatory Kelvin Wilson on the right side of the Celtic penalty area, referee Craig Thomson dismissing claims from the home players that the defender had been fouled.
With goalkeeper Fraser Forster dragged towards the near post, Driver cut the ball back into the path of Paterson. But with the goal at his mercy, the teenager sliced his first time shot wide of the target from around 12 yards.
It was a major let-off for the champions and duly sparked them into a more vigorous approach. Just two minutes later, Gary Hooper and Kris Commons combined down the left, with the latter’s fine cross picking out Samaras at the far post. The big Greek connected with the ball sweetly but his firm shot crashed back off Enckelman’s left hand post.
Celtic were forced into a change in the 32nd minute, Mulgrew finally succumbing to the damage he had sustained in the clash with MacDonald and leaving the pitch looking groggy as he was replaced by Joe Ledley.
Two minutes later, Celtic were in front with a well-worked goal, but one which Enckelman should have prevented. Commons, again in the kind of
eye-catching form which makes his absence from the Scotland squad such a hot topic, sent Samaras racing clear through the middle with a delightfully weighted reverse pass.
Samaras strode into the penalty area and although his low, left foot shot was firmly enough struck, it was also straight at Enckelman. The big Finn should have at least blocked the effort but instead allowed the ball to pass
between his legs and into the net.
Hearts responded brightly enough, Ryan Stevenson coming close with a couple of long-range efforts and Mehdi Taouil forcing a fingertip save from Forster with a fierce rising shot. But, in the last of six minutes of first half stoppage time, Commons should have doubled Celtic’s lead when he flashed a close range shot across the face of goal after cleverly working the opening for himself.
Lennon’s men barely moved out of first gear after the break, perhaps subconsciously allowing themselves to feel a degree of comfort with the slender lead which was ultimately good enough to win the contest.
Hearts certainly enjoyed plenty of possession in the second half but lacked both the guile and conviction to do anything effective with it. Arvydas Novikovas typified that failing in his team’s make-up, the young Lithuanian midfielder’s game intelligence not matching his undoubted technical
ability as he was guilty of some poor decision-making in promising positions.
Paterson sustained an injury in a challenge with Wilson, forcing him to limp off and be replaced by John Sutton, who took over the thankless task up front for Hearts.
Celtic sporadically threatened to secure a second goal, Commons at the heart of most of their liveliest work. He blazed a shot over from a tight angle after turning Ryan McGowan inside out on the left and then forced Enckelman into a less than convincing save when the keeper fisted a stinging shot behind for a corner.
It took Hearts until the 81st minute to register their first attempt at goal in the second half, Marius Zaliukas heading a Ryan Stevenson corner well over.