Celtic 2-0 Hearts: Jim Jefferies gets more food for thought
The Hearts manager, having spent most of the last two weeks garnering information on those at his disposal, said he is gradually forming opinions on who should be kept for the long haul and who does not match his expectations. One 60-second spurt from Celtic early in the second half was sufficient to secure victory as Glenn Loovens and Marc-Antoine Fortune settled the nerves of the irascible Parkhead natives.
Among the crowd was Hearts director Sergejus Fedotovas, accompanied by the Portsmouth manager Avram Grant. If the Israeli thought he had his hands full attempting to stave off liquidation at the south coast club, Jefferies considers his own task no less daunting.
"I'm very restricted in what I can do at the moment," he said, mindful that Hearts acquitted themselves relatively well from back to middle in Glasgow but offered nothing in attack. "Of the team that was put out last night, I can't fault anyone for effort or commitment. I thought the midfield with Ryan Stevenson, Michael Stewart and Ian Black looked to be on the same wavelength. When we got the ball we didn't have the options you would look for.
"There were areas we were disappointed with but every day that goes by we learn a bit more about the players. That's three games and we're learning all the time without making immediate judgments. This is not a time to judge players because everyone has to be given a proper chance. There's a time between now and the end of the season for them to prove they are good enough because, if they're not, they'll have to be moved on and we'll have to bring in players. I think that's where I can be a big help.
"I praised the players after the game for the application and effort they showed. I said at half-time the crucial period was the opening ten or 15 minutes of the second half. If you're 0-0 at Parkhead and you get through the start of the second half, I certainly know from experience that the crowd get frustrated.
"We lost a bad goal within four minutes, then we lost another one a minute later. Confidence then came into play with Celtic. They were flowing, everybody wanted the ball and they are very difficult opponents to play against like that. We're grateful not to lose any more and, considering the players that were out, it was a bit of damage limitation for us. But you can't change everything overnight when you don't have an opportunity to do so.
"All I can do now is assess the situation. I've given a couple of boys opportunities, albeit through injuries, but I've made up my mind now whether they are going to be with me or not. There's a nucleus of decent players here, what's needed is the rest to be put together. Hopefully I'll get the opportunity to do that.
"This injury list is horrendous. I had Eggert Jonsson playing right-back last night. We were going to try Dawid Kucharski there but he was like a fish out of water when we tried him there in training. He's more suited to central defence but he's inexperienced at this level. You're always a bit unsure but it's about finding out if he's good enough or not good enough. Games like last night help."
With Jose Goncalves still banished due to ongoing contract talks and Jason Thomson and Ismael Bouzid injured, it was indeed a makeshift Hearts defence which took the field. Midfield was similarly unfamiliar as recent signing Stevenson debuted alongside 20-year-old Paul Mulrooney, the latter making his first top-team appearance as the latest graduate from the Riccarton youth academy. Celtic began with home debuts for three of their eight January signings: Diomansy Kamara, Edson Braafheid and Robbie Keane. Thomas Rogne would later feature as a second-half substitute.
The Irishman received a Messiah-like welcome when his name was announced over the stadium PA system pre-match and passed up a glorious opportunity to repay the compliment on eight minutes. A loping pass out of defence by Josh Thompson found Keane looking suspiciously offside behind the Hearts back line. With no flag or whistle, the striker continued into space but wastefully shot into the side netting from an acute angle.
Hearts survived another close call on 26 minutes, with Marian Kello due a multitude of thanks for preserving the blank scoreline. Aiden McGeady meandered inside from the right flank, his pass to Kamara was redirected into the path of Scott Brown but the sprawling Kello blocked the new Celtic captain's shot at close range. Fortune struck the rebound off the goalkeeper's back and behind for a corner. Moments later, again following McGeady's creative build-up play, Kello denied Keane with another impressive save down low.
When in possession Hearts were brave enough to attack their opponents when the opportunity arose. Their clearest opening of the first period fell to Mulrooney on 33 minutes. Stewart released a shot from distance which was heading wide until the midfielder jarred out a foot in an attempt to steer the ball goalwards, but it bounced wide of the Celtic net. Any relief experienced by Artur Boruc at that point would have been tempered by the realisation that his defence was enduring an erratic evening at best. Loovens in particular seemed uneasy in possession and sent several wayward passes out of defence.
If Hearts derived any confidence from the Dutchman's uncertainty, it dissipated within five minutes of the restart as a double whammy propelled the hosts two goals clear. On 49 minutes Kamara's corner landed kindly for Loovens, who was accorded an excessive amount of time by Marius Zaliukas inside the penalty area. He controlled the ball, turned and dispatched it beyond Kello, leaving Zaliukas pointing an accusing finger at nearby David Obua for refusing to execute a block tackle. Seconds later, Fortune fastened on to McGeady's through pass for a neat conversion inside Kello's left post. With 40 minutes remaining, the game was over as a contest.
Keane was by now craving a goal to mark his home debut, but Kello's legs again denied the Irishman on 68 minutes. He at least had the grace to acknowledge the Slovakian's continued defiance as Hearts cleared the danger. Wishing became desperation as the second half progressed, and from substitute Ki's cushioned pass Keane could only scoop his finish over the Hearts crossbar. His night ended in personal disappointment, although the damage inflicted by his colleagues was sufficient to secure three points. It also helped Celtic close to within eight points of SPL leaders Rangers, who drew 1-1 with Motherwell at Fir Park.
"We were professional enough and got the job done," said Celtic manager Tony Mowbray. "Hearts made it difficult for us to start with and we missed a couple of chances at 0-0. But a couple of quick goals in the second half settled us and I think it was the right result. On another night Robbie could have scored three or four. He got into those scoring positions and that's a great credit to him. The team can only get better, they've had four or five days together.
"We have five players still staying in hotels at the minute, people leaving training and going to look for somewhere to live so that's not ideal. It will take time."