AS PREPARATIONS for a Champions League match go, Neil Lennon could hardly have designed a better outing than this for his team. Neither too easy nor too taxing, it was a game that stretched Celtic, all right, yet ended with their confidence boosted.
The victory – which keeps the champions within touching distance of Inverness, who have played a game more – was one reason for that. More specifically, it was the manner in which it was achieved, particularly the way in which they regained the lead within six minutes of Jason Holt’s equaliser for Hearts. After that goal by Anthony Stokes, new striker Teemu Pukki provided further grounds for optimism by rounding off the scoring on his debut.
Celtic kept possession for long stretches of the match, stroking the ball about with ease, but the fact it took them until the closing minutes to secure the three points was testament to the tenacity with which Hearts competed.
The ease with which Scott Brown drifted past Jamie Hamill in the opening minutes did not augur well for the home team, but, boosted by the return from suspension of defenders Danny Wilson and Kevin McHattie, Hearts went on to compete well.
On the balance of play, Celtic deserved their half-time lead, but the manner in which they got it was curious at best, and nonsensical at worst.
Hamill, whose red card for deliberate hand-ball in the box against Caley Thistle was overturned on appeal, was again ruled to have handled. The fact he was within touching distance of Stokes when the latter headed the ball towards him, and thus had no time to get out of the way, appeared not to impress Willie Collum: Hamill’s hand was at an unnatural angle, according to the official, and Kris Commons duly scored from the spot.
The one saving grace about the decision from Hamill’s point of view was that this time he was only booked. But the referee’s ruling did the damage all the same, and worse could have followed within minutes but for an offside flag against Stokes just as he stroked the ball into the net.
Hearts’ equaliser, some ten minutes into the second half, owed something to their own perseverance and perhaps more to a momentary indolence in the Celtic defence. The ball should have been cleared before it reached Holt on the edge of the penalty area, and the midfielder’s shot appeared to wrongfoot Forster, taking a slight deflection on the way past the goalkeeper.
Celtic needed to raise their game, and they duly did. Georgios Samaras, who had come off the bench just before half-time to replace the injured Adam Matthews, came close to reclaiming the lead just after the goal, but he was stretched to the limit in a bid to reach a cross from the left and could only knock the ball over the bar from a few yards out.
Soon afterwards, Stokes made no mistake when Kris Commons headed on into his path. Taking a header as a first touch himself, the Irishman then calmly tipped his shot past Jamie MacDonald.
Charlie Mulgrew came on for Joe Ledley just after that goal, and may have done enough to secure a place in Lennon’s starting line-up against AC Milan on Wednesday. Commons, who made way for Pukki with 20 minutes to play, surely did more than enough to win a midfield berth; had he stayed on until the end, he would have rivalled Stokes as man of the match.
As it was, the goalscorer turned provider in the closing stages, to produce a final score that slightly flattered Hearts. Stokes got a lucky break when a block of his attempted cross rebounded to him on the bye-line, but there was nothing at all fortunate in the way he lofted a ball from there towards Pukki, who had time to pick his spot and head home.
If there was a downside of the game for Celtic, it was the number of chances they failed to convert, with Samaras and Virgil van Dijk both volleying over in the closing 20 minutes. They are unlikely to get nearly so many opportunities against Milan. Gary Locke, meanwhile, can take comfort from the fact that far more experienced Hearts teams have suffered heavier defeats at the hands of Celtic. Having now played the best side in the league, the Tynecastle manager has further evidence that, given the right circumstances, his young squad are more than capable of competing – and thriving – at this level.