ONE of the most entertaining things about the day was the attendance statistic given in the aftermath.
SCORERS: Celtic - Commons 64, Forrest 90
The official figure at Celtic Park yesterday was 46,058, but if there were that many present in an atmosphere akin to a library for the most part then they stayed well hidden. At a guess, you would say there were no more than 25,000 here to see Celtic continue their unbeaten run – the first time in ten years that they have got to Christmas without losing a match in the league.
That was the upside for Neil Lennon. That and two smartly taken goals from Kris Commons, who is now on 13 for the season, and James Forrest, who brightened up the game a tad when he came on at half-time after 45 putrid minutes.
For Hearts, relief. And a bit of pride restored after their unmerciful Scottish Cup hiding of a few weeks back. They dug in, kept their composure, kept Celtic goal-less for an hour and then kept their discipline after falling behind, unlike in the 7-0 annihilation when they went chasing things early and added to their own humiliation.
There was almost a surreal moment very late in this game. Hearts had barely had an attempt on target all day but in the 90th minute, from a corner by David Smith, Dylan McGowan had a header cleared off the line by Commons. Had that gone in then Celtic Park would have erupted in anger and injustice but, as it turned out, it was merely the spark for Celtic’s second, a nice through ball from Georgios Samaras and clinical finish from Forrest, who left Kevin McHattie in a heap on the floor before beating Jamie MacDonald with a foot with the outside of his right boot.
It was a piece of quality that stood out, because there was so little of it on show.
Billy Brown, the Hearts assistant manager, said during the week that his team would not park the bus but that was always a vow that his players were never likely to deliver on.
What else were they to do against a team that scored seven against them the last time they played? Was a team with an average age of 21 supposed to come here and have a go after conceding 15 goals in the four games since their last victory?
No. That would have been more of a death-wish than a tactical masterplan.
As even the dogs on the street know by now, Hearts are horrendously diminished in terms of numbers, so much so that they only had four outfield players on their substitutes bench. Such is the reality at Tynecastle. Yesterday was all about survival for them.
The fact that they survived for so long was a tribute to their concentration and discipline at the back – Danny Wilson stood up strong – and a testament to the excellence of their goalkeeper, MacDonald. Hearts held out for over an hour, that Commons goal having its origins in a throw-in that went Celtic’s way when it should have been given in the opposite direction.
Commons’ cool finish from Scott Brown’s pass was a rare example of Celtic getting it right on a day when they got so much wrong. They had been wasteful up to that point. Commons had a chance in the opening minutes and couldn’t get the better of MacDonald. Anthony Stokes had a fine opportunity to open the scoring soon after but from close-range he couldn’t beat the Hearts goalkeeper either, his snap shot being tipped on to the crossbar by MacDonald.
There were a couple of moments from Teemu Pukki and a couple more unimpressive pieces of finishing from a player who, in his search for confidence, might have relished going up against such a callow defence. Pukki was replaced by Samaras 20 minutes before the end. Lennon might well have taken off Stokes as well for all the impact he had.
This double act is not working. Stokes has scored one goal in his last 12 appearances for Celtic. Pukki has three goals in 19 appearances. These are the club’s two main strikers and they are going through the horrors right now. Much has been heard of Bahrudin Atajic at Celtic, but very little has been seen of him. Lennon seems reluctant to play the young man from the start – he remained on the bench yesterday – but you wonder for how much longer he’ll keep him in reserve when his £2.4 million Finn and his less than convincing Irishman are putting in such non-descript performances.
The opening half meandered along, the flow of traffic heading only one way, pretty much, and the lack of accuracy in Lennon’s team again illustrated by another spurned chance, this time from Joe Ledley, who got himself into space on the edge of the Hearts six-yard box and stooped to head a Commons cross straight at MacDonald.
Commons lifted the anxiety and Forrest added the gloss. Celtic will have been glad of the win if not the performance. Hearts, meanwhile, will have been happy that they left town with their dignity.