HEARTS’ performances at the top of the Championship may have made them look good enough to hold their own against most top-flight clubs, but Celtic were always going to be a different proposition – and that was if the home team held on to 11 men.
Scorers: Celtic - Van Dijk (30, 60), Guidetti (pen 51), Stokes (54)
Reduced to ten, as they were after eight minutes of this William Hill Scottish Cup fourth-round tie when Morgaro Gomis was red-carded, Robbie Neilson’s side quickly found that their task had become all but impossible.
If referee Willie Collum got that decision right when he ruled that the home captain had been guilty of a dangerous tackle, he and assistant Graham Chambers were mistaken when they awarded Celtic a penalty six minutes into the second half. A goal down at half-time after Virgil Van Dijk’s opener, Hearts had their last hopes of a comeback dashed when John Guidetti scored from the spot.
When Antony Stokes and Van Dijk added two more with half an hour still to play, a replica of the 7-0 score from a year ago looked to be on the cards. But Celtic were not in the devastating form they had shown at the same stage last year, Hearts are made of sterner stuff than they were then, and the match was played out almost calmly. The visitors should have had a fifth when Kris Commons fired home after Neil Alexander had spilled an Alexander Tonev shot, but the referee saw an offence that no-one else had noticed and chalked it off.
It was a curious, unsatisfactory end to a match which could have become a first-rate contest, and which got under way in the best possible spirit when the teams came out to the old theme tune from Scotsport, in honour of presenter Arthur Montford, who died last week. Hearts, as they had been in last week’s league win over Rangers, were missing four first-choice players from their starting line-up – Danny Wilson, Prince Buaben, Sam Nicholson and Osman Sow. Guidetti, Nir Bitton and James Forrest were all in Ronny Deila’s starting 11.
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Neilson had said that his team would go out to play positive football, and they were true to his word, with James Keatings forcing a save out of former Tynecastle goalkeeper Craig Gordon in the opening minute. But before the match had time to settle down into a proper pattern, Gomis saw red.
The Hearts captain slid in at speed, and with both feet up, to challenge opposite number Scott Brown for a loose ball in the middle of the park. Brown and several of his team-mates reacted angrily, and after taking 15 or 20 seconds to allow things to cool down, Collum showed the home skipper the red card.
The match was in danger of overheating for a time after Gomis’s dismissal, with every tackle bringing howls of mock outrage from the crowd. Adam Matthews was booked for a trip on Jamie Walker, and several other challenges might have been shown a yellow card, but Collum’s sensible approach helped matters calm down.
Having begun with a 4-5-1 formation, Hearts did not have to change their shape after their captain’s departure, and for a time maintained something approaching parity. They had a chance to test Gordon when they got a free kick in a central position just outside the box, but Alim Ozturk sent his effort wide of goal.
Celtic steadily took control from midway through the half, and Matthews and Bitton both shot wide, the latter via a deflection. Then, with nearly half an hour played, the breakthrough came.
A corner from the right was cleared by Callum Paterson only as far as Antony Stokes. His drive back across the box looked like a wayward shot, but it was met by Van Dijk, whose first-time half-volley found its way through a number of Hearts defenders and into the net. Bitton and Stokes both shot straight at Alexander as Celtic tried to press home their advantage, then Van Dijk should have made it two from a Stokes corner, but contrived to scoop the ball over the bar from a couple of yards out .
Given the number of chances they were creating, it seemed only a matter of time before Celtic would add to their lead in the second half, but Collum made their task that bit easier six minutes after the restart when he pointed to the spot. Brad McKay lunged in but failed to make contact either with the ball or Guidetti, who slipped and fell in the act of turning. Even so, after consulting his assistant, Collum pointed to the spot, and Guidetti made no mistake.
Three minutes later, Stokes made it 3-0 with a low drive from the left into the far corner. With more than half an hour still to play, Celtic were able to treat the rest of the match as little more than a training exercise, while for Hearts the priority was staying calm and limiting the damage. Van Dijk got the fourth on the hour mark, nodding in a Stefan Johansen corner from a couple of yards out on one of the rare occasions in which the Hearts defence was found wanting for positional sense.
The home team found it difficult to break out of their own half in what remained of the game, although Jamie Walker did have a shot saved after one foray upfield, and substitute Robbie Buchanan dragged a shot wide after bursting clear of Efe Ambrose.
A dozen minutes from time at the other end, substitute Tonev fired in a low shot, which Alexander fumbled into the path of Commons, who had also come off the bench for a late amble. Commons shot home only to have his effort ruled out.
For Hearts, who have not won a tie in the competition since they lifted the trophy in 2012, that was the smallest of mercies on an unforgiving afternoon. For Celtic, this was another potentially difficult obstacle cleared with ease, and in some style.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, Ozturk, McKay, Eckersley, Walker (Buchanan 68), Holt (Buaben 58), Pallardo, Gomis, King, Keatings (Robinson 77). Subs not used: Hamilton, McGhee, McKirdy, Flanagan.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews, Izaguirre, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Bitton, Brown, Forrest (Tonev 57), Guidetti, Stokes (Griffiths 67), Johansen (Commons 67). Subs not used: Zaluska, Kayal, O’Connell, McGregor.
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