Hearts 0-2 Celtic: Goals from Christie and Ntcham send Hoops five points clear at summit of Scottish Premiership

Celtic defeated Hearts 2-0 leaving Daniel Stendel without a goal or a point since taking the reins at Tynecastle
Celtic defeated Hearts 2-0 leaving Daniel Stendel without a goal or a point since taking the reins at Tynecastle
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Celtic left Daniel Stendel still waiting for both his first goal and league point as Hearts manager as the Scottish champions opened up a five-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership.

Ryan Christie’s 17th goal of another hugely productive season set Neil Lennon’s side on their way to a ninth consecutive league victory with Olivier Ntcham also scoring before half-time to repel a spirited effort from Hearts.

While Celtic now enjoy some daylight in the title race, putting added pressure on rivals Rangers ahead of their trip to Hibs on Friday night, the Gorgie club remain firmly entrenched in a relegation battle which takes them to fellow strugglers Hamilton in a crucial fixture on Saturday.

As Stendel attempts to assess the squad he has inherited as rapidly as possible, he made five changes to his starting line-up from last weekend’s anticlimactic opening to his tenure against St Johnstone.

The German coach could take a degree of satisfaction from the manner in which his reshuffled side approached the assignment but for all of their endeavour and energy, they were ultimately undone by the greater quality and cutting edge of Lennon’s men.

The direct and positive manner in which Hearts set about taking the game to the visitors at least provided some encouragement for the home support in the opening 25 minutes.

Without seriously testing Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster, who made a couple of comfortable saves from Ollie Bozanic and Craig Wighton in the opening exchanges, Hearts enjoyed a measure of success in hassling the eight-in-a-row title winners out of their customary rhythm.

It was a period when Hearts really needed to find the opening goal to give themselves a platform to build upon and Bozanic failed to take advantage of a couple of highly promising set piece situations when he only succeeded in finding the first Celtic defender.

Scott Brown was booked after just 18 minutes for a late challenge on Aaron Hickey as the Celtic captain attempted to secure a foothold for his team amid the frenzied nature of the contest.

Craig Halkett nodded over from a Jake Mulraney cross, then Bozanic glanced a header wide from Wighton’s fine delivery as Hearts continued to probe feverishly.

But there was no little sense of inevitability in the air when Celtic went ahead with their first meaningful attacking move in the 28th minute.

It was a goal which oozed fluency and precision, James Forrest and Odsonne Edouard combining to stretch the Hearts defence and create the opening for Christie who guided a low shot beyond Joel Pereira’s left hand from the edge of the penalty area.

Hearts’ frustration was understandable but still no excuse for Steven MacLean’s impetuosity in quickly earning a booking for a needless foul on Brown.

Stendel was forced into a change with Sean Clare replacing the injured Jamie Brandon at right-back and Celtic began to exert sustained control of possession for the first time.

Pereira was almost caught out by a Christie cross from the right, scrambling to touch the ball onto his crossbar, then the Portuguese ‘keeper had to race from his line to save at Edouard’s feet after a fine through ball from Ntcham had split the home defence.

Chances were coming Celtic’s way regularly now and Forrest should have done better than drag a shot wide after being played in by Ntcham in the 39th minute.

But Celtic did double their lead a minute later after Loic Damour, engaged in a running battle with Brown, lost possession to the visiting skipper. It allowed Forrest to break free on the left and cut the ball back for Ntcham to smash high beyond Pereira from around 12 yards.

Damour was booked for one foul too many on Brown with Kristoffer Ajer joining him in referee Bobby Madden’s notebook for his needless reaction to the incident. Tempers were threatening to boil over when Damour went down theatrically under a Jonny Hayes’ challenge on the touchline and Madden was probably relieved to blow the half-time whistle.

Hearts needed a fairly quick response after the break to have any realistic prospect of salvaging anything from the match and Clare wasn’t too far away with a shot across the face of Forster’s goal following a fine surge into the box.

But Hearts’ willingness to commit more men forward in pursuit of a lifeline left them increasingly open to Celtic’s slick counter-attacking. Callum McGregor had a goal ruled out for offside after Hickey’s brilliant challenge on Edouard had seen the ball break into his path, then the French striker clipped the outside of Pereira’s left hand post with a header.

Stendel, who had replaced Bozanic with Glenn Whelan at the start of the second half, made his final change of the night just after the hour mark as the visibly tiring Mulraney made way for teenage striker Euan Henderson.

But for all that Hearts continued to perform with greater purpose than has been witnessed by the Tynecastle faithful for some time, they were unable to pull the goal back which might have ensued a nervy finale to the contest for Celtic.

As it was, substitute Leigh Griffiths - always guaranteed a warm welcome in this part of Edinburgh - should have rubbed salt in Hearts’ wounds in the closing moments when his touch deserted him when he only had Pereira to beat.