EVERY story, no matter how gripping, needs some straightforward chapters. Episodes which have the odd moment of excitement, but essentially keep everything progressing smoothly towards the desired ending.
Hearts 0-2 Celtic
This was one such chapter in the tale of Celtic’s serene stroll towards their third successive title. No surreal events, no craziness on or off the pitch, but enough to keep up interest right to the end, with the destination of the points only being confirmed when Teemu Pukki scored his team’s second in stoppage time.
The same could be said of the game from Hearts’ point of view, the difference being that their season seems sure to conclude in an altogether undesirable fashion. Gary Locke’s team competed well, and came close to seizing an equaliser in the ten minutes before the Finn’s finish finished them off, but no matter how spirited their display, the inescapable fact is that they are now one game closer to relegation.
The last time Celtic visited Tynecastle, they had scored seven without reply on Scottish Cup duty, but there was never any risk of a repetition this time round. Neil Lennon’s side had been on top form that day, and found Hearts at their most hapless, but Celtic have inevitably found it impossible to remain at that level, while Hearts have rediscovered a certain solidity.
In any case, it was in both teams’ interests on Saturday to keep the opening stages of the game relatively incident-free. Hearts went behind after three minutes in the cup-tie, so were intent on a sensible start. Celtic would not have said no to the odd early goal, of course, but their sedate pace suggested their principal concern was ensuring Fraser Forster claimed the league record for the longest run without conceding a goal.
The goalkeeper needed to get beyond the 31st minute to overtake Bobby Clark’s record, and he did it without any real scares. The closest thing to a threat within that period came when Forster himself fumbled a Jamie Hamill cross, but no Hearts player was close enough to challenge, allowing the Englishman to gather.
There was a flurry of activity late on in the half, with Hearts’ best moment coming when Callum Paterson broke free down the right. He delivered a well-weighted chip into the box, but Virgil van Dijk stepped in ahead of Paul McCallum to clear the danger.
The Dutchman had by then struck a free kick wide, and he also had the last chance of the half when he headed over from a corner. Kris Commons and Scott Brown had also shot over, and several other attempts had been blocked by a well-drilled home defence.
Celtic maintained their dominance in the early stages of the second half, and Jamie MacDonald did well to keep out an Anthony Stokes header at the back post from a Commons free kick. But there was nothing the goalkeeper could do to prevent Leigh Griffiths from opening the scoring when Stokes found the striker with a long ball from his own half.
A slip by Brad McKay let the former Hibs man claim possession and Griffiths turned Danny Wilson one way then the other as he moved into the top left corner of the box. From there, he fired a fierce shot into the far corner of MacDonald’s net, and Celtic at last had the lead they had been threatening to take for some time.
Griffiths celebrated his first Celtic goal excitedly in front of the Hearts fans before sprinting to embrace his manager. “I think it was more relief than anything else,” said Lennon. “Obviously there was an added incentive for a Hibs fan scoring against Hearts, but that’s not the main focus now. He has broken his duck for Celtic and it’s a brilliant start for him.”
Hearts substitute Dale Carrick looked lively after coming on for Paul McCallum, and had a shot blocked then a header off target as the home team searched for the equaliser. Billy King and Jason Holt, the latter back from injury after three months out, also came off the bench as Hearts did everything in their power to get back into the match.
But the game ended as the previous two league encounters had done, with a goal wrapping up the points for Celtic. Pukki, who had come on for Griffiths, continues to look less than impressive. But when Amido Balde got the better of Hamill and crossed from the left, the striker was composed enough to shoot home.
Celtic’s 15th league win in a row was also Forster’s 13th successive Premiership shut-out. Their attention now turns to Pittodrie tomorrow night, when they face what could be the biggest challenge so far to their unbeaten league record.
At the other end of the table, Hearts are 18 points behind second-bottom St Mirren, and on course to be relegated before the split. Their players can do little more than ignore the league table, keep performing to the best of their ability and trust that off-field matters will be resolved over the next few months so that they can begin next season out of administration and on a stable footing. The aim, as Sam Nicholson said, is simply to finish the season as strongly as possible. “That’s what the gaffer keeps saying to us – even if we’re getting beat, just keep positive, just keep going for it,” he said. “If we’re getting beat 1-0 we might as well just go for it, chuck a couple of players up and stuff. As long as we keep going for it. It’s just down to us, I suppose.”
Celtic - Griffiths (58), Pukki (90)
Referee: K Clancy