HAD Hibs hung on to win this game it would have been an interesting scientific experiment to see how long Neil Lennon could have lasted in the aftermath without spontaneously combusting.
SCORERS: Hibs - Heffernan 18; Celtic - Forrest 77
Hibs took the lead with a Paul Heffernan goal that had sent the Celtic manager into apoplexy given that the striker was offside at the time he received the ball. Then Lennon had to wait an eternity for Hibs to buckle. Buckle they did, but oh how Celtic had to keep hammering away at them before they did.
Only around 15 minutes remained when James Forrest unlocked the Hibs defence with a gorgeous finish with the outside of his right foot, a shot that curled beyond the excellent Ben Williams and into the far corner of a net that had looked impregnable up to that point. For Hibs, the sickener was that they were down to ten men in that moment, the absent player being the doughty Ryan McGivern, who had gone off momentarily to receive treatment
There was a joy in the goal, but deep concern in one sense. The only reason Forrest was there to score was because he had come on as an early substitute for the injured Kris Commons. If this hard-earned point came at the cost of Commons for Tuesday’s night Champions League match with Ajax – and it’s not looking good – then it was a seriously heavy price that Celtic paid.
A point was the least they deserved. Hibs, too, deserved something. Sure, they got lucky with their goal and they had to scrap like hell to preserve the draw, but they warranted it. Their commitment was fantastic. Lennon was angry about what he saw as their over-the-top physicality, a point that was met head-on by
his counterpart. “Good,” said Pat Fenlon. “That means the message is getting across to my players.”
They asked Celtic so many questions and denied them so many times that it would have been cruel had they ended their day with nothing. Defending is part of the game, too. And Hibs defended quite wonderfully amid the Celtic onslaught. It took a real piece of class to finally undo them.
Heffernan’s opener rendered Lennon a bit of a basket case on the touchline and it was hardly a surprise. The striker scampered on to the ball from an offside position and did enough to get his shot past Fraser Forster despite the goalkeeper getting a touch on it. It was so blatantly offside that Lennon was railing even before the ball had rolled into the net. Later, when Heffernan darted away again only to be halted by an offside flag, the Celtic manager sarcastically applauded the fourth official. It was that kind of testy afternoon.
The edge was there from the start. Fenlon said his team would live in Celtic’s face and, sure enough, they did. They had a physical superiority in the middle of the park, Scott Robertson setting the agenda with lusty tackles on Beram Kayal. But Robertson wasn’t alone. In their game of destruction, Hibs had many battlers. Owain Tudur Jones and Kevin Thomson were as adept at hassling and harrying Celtic players as Robertson was. Lennon called some of their tackles akin to what you might see in rugby.
It was an attritional game and a tough one in which to make your debut, as Darnell Fisher did for Celtic, at right back. Celtic were denied the services of Emilio Izaguirre through flu and also Mikael Lustig. Both should be fit for Tuesday.
Celtic created an amount of chances. Forrest was outstanding when he came on for Commons, who almost scored himself before he went off. Commons seized on a long ball that had cut Hibs wide open and galloped on to face the advancing Williams. You’d have banked on Commons to finish, but he didn’t. His gentle lob over Williams’ head wasn’t quite gentle enough, the ball just about clearing the crossbar. It was his last act of the day before going off.
When Commons departed, Forrest arrived and before too long Celtic were throwing kitchen sinks at their hosts. At times they played four up front – Forrest, Anthony Stokes, Georgios Samaras and Teemu Pukki. There were some fair old scrambles in that Hibs defence but the last-ditch defending only served as yet more reminders of Hibs’ terrific intensity. They got their bodies in the way of so many shots that you lost count midway through the second half. McGivern made a wonderful intervention just as Pukki – quite sluggish, it has to be said – was about to pull the trigger. That was just before the break. Just after it, same deal. Beram Kayal’s shot was beaten away by Williams and just when you thought that Samaras might be the first to the loose ball, Michael Nelson slid in and poked it away from him.
Celtic kept doing their stuff and Forrest’s equaliser was both brilliant and deserved. He scythed his way into the Hibs penalty area and then cushioned his shot past Williams. They could easily have gone on to win through Anthony Stokes or Forrest again, but the Hibs resistance just about held. They could thank Williams. With three minutes left, Forrest hit a volley and the goalkeeper did superbly to keep it out. It was the story of the day in many ways.