The number of people wearing Santa hats as they made their way to Parkhead was a reminder that this game was expected to be a gift for Celtic as they sought to make it to Christmas unbeaten in the league. After all, they had thrashed the opponents by seven goals just three weeks earlier, when they had been six up within 60 minutes.
Celtic 2-0 Hearts
Scorers: Celtic - Commons (64), Forrest, 90)
After an hour on Saturday, the score was 0-0. Somehow, Hearts were managing to cling to a clean sheet. It had taken some desperate and, at times, brilliant defending. Danny Wilson cleared from the toes of Teemu Pukki and Dylan McGowan was in the right position to header behind as Celtic players queued up behind him. And also we had Jamie MacDonald, whose heroics of late have ensured that the loss of seven goals to Celtic last month shall never be used against him. He flung himself this way and that, although his best save might have been his first one, when he barely had time to move but still managed to tip a stabbed shot from Anthony Stokes on to the bar.
After an hour, then, it was beginning to look as if Hearts might yet secure what would have been a result of the season, and one of the finest in their recent history. Forget 5-1 wins at Hampden when augmented by experienced, relatively high-earners against abject derby opponents. This looked like it might stand as an even more laudable performance since it involved several young, inexperienced players dipping deep into their reserves of resilience. Hearts didn’t even have enough bodies with which to fill the bench – or so manager Gary Locke claimed, after naming only five substitutes.
Of course, Celtic helped Hearts to some extent. They looked listless and unmotivated, not altogether surprising since they started the game seven points clear at the top, a lead that has since been increased to ten. Celtic Park also looked some way below half-full, even if the official attendance was given as more than 40,000. Still, rather than criticise those who stayed away, it feels more appropriate to applaud those who came to watch what was meant to be a turkey shoot – on the Saturday before Christmas – after torrential rain had fallen all morning and with the game also being shown live on television. It was only remotely stirring for the Hearts support, who willed their players through this game of kick-the-ball away as far as you can and still handed their players an ovation at the end despite a third straight league defeat to follow that multi-goal cup beating. Given the scores being forecast by some before kick-off, a 2-0 loss almost seemed like something to celebrate.
Even more so than last weekend, when Hibernian were the visitors, the spotlight fell on Stokes and Teemu Pukki, the Celtic strikers, who were expected to make hay here. If Pukki gained much in the way of confidence from his winner the previous Saturday, then this was not evident here. He looked just as he has looked in recent weeks; terrified of making a mistake. His passes were invariably misplaced and he had only one attempt on goal. It must be frustrating for the Celtic fans and his supportive manager Neil Lennon, because you do sense that there is a player there.
As on several occasions this season, Kris Commons took the strain for Celtic in the goalscoring department, slipping the ball past MacDonald after 63 minutes following a neat through ball from Scott Brown. He then played a huge part in ensuring Celtic remained ahead with only minutes remaining when Dylan McGowan rose well to connect with a header. If it hadn’t been for Commons’ sensible positioning on the line, Parkhead would have been in ferment, the cheers of joyful Hearts fans intermingling with the jeers of furious Celtic supporters.
“It seems every time we play them that Kris Commons ends up with a bottle of champagne for being man of the match,” lamented McGowan, with reference to the player’s hat-trick in the 7-0 win.
“He is obviously a really good player and he played well again today. He scored his goal and then did his job at the back post at the end of the match. It’s disappointing to lose again but I think we did all right. We got back a little bit of pride considering we got beaten 7-0 by them a couple of weeks ago.
“Even at 1-0 we pushed a lot of bodies forward in the last few minutes and almost got our reward with my header from the corner. To be honest, the scoreline is probably a fair reflection of the game in terms of possession and chances. But we’re disappointed because we could have stolen a point.”
Pukki was substituted after just over 70 minutes, but his replacement, Georgios Samaras did not do a whole lot more until playing in fellow substitute James Forrest for the goal that finally secured the three points for Celtic, with only moments remaining. Samaras had already angered the home supporters before even touching the ball when he lazily allowed Brad McKay to nip in and steal possession from him.
It was remarkable it took Celtic so long to score the decisive goal. With players committed forward, there was little the visitors could do as Samaras played in Forrest with an astute pass. The winger let McKay commit himself before taking the ball round the defender and scoring past MacDonald.
The result means Hearts have just two more chances to reach the zero point mark before the end of the year, against Kilmarnock on Boxing Day, and then St Mirren in Paisley this weekend.
“It’s definitely a tough place we are in,” admitted McGowan, “but we have just got to keep trying to get on a run.
“That’s one of the simplest thing to say in football – and one of the hardest to do.”