Their residency at the summit was guaranteed to continue for another few days at least, courtesy of Aberdeen’s draw with Inverness on Saturday. But this was a far from convincing response to that let-off from Celtic. This result falls some way short of signalling a return to form for Ronny Deila’s men. Like many at this time of year, they were guilty of falling asleep before the end.
After the relief of seeing Aberdeen secure only a point against Inverness on Saturday, Celtic were desperate to take full advantage by collecting three points at Tynecastle. That they failed to do so will have to count as a failure, particularly since they were in front twice. Indeed, they were even leading as the game entered time added on.
Scott Wilson, the town crier in these parts, was in the midst of performing his meticulous time-keeping duties when Osman Sow’s deflected free-kick found the top corner of Craig Gordon’s goal. Indeed, the Tannoy man, who normally instructs Tynecastle to “make some noise”, was midway through informing spectators there was to be four minutes of time added on when he was interrupted by a huge roar.
Sow had latched on to Prince Buaben’s nudged pass from a free-kick 25 yards from goal. Sensing an opportunity, he simply let fly. As Wilson’s message across the speakers underlined, it was getting past the point where there was nothing to lose. Why not take a chance? Why not seek to take advantage of Celtic’s slowness in getting re-organised after James Forrest had fouled fellow substitute Billy King?
Sow’s well-struck effort was helped by clipping substitute Gary Mackay-Steven’s heel. Otherwise it might not have wrong-footed Gordon to the extent that it did.
The goalkeeper could only watch as the ball sailed into the top corner. It was especially frustrating for the former Hearts player, because he had made two fine saves to keep the home team out in the opening half. Although there was little he could do to prevent Sam Nicholson equalising just before half-time, Gordon had already excelled in keeping out efforts from Buaben and Gavin Reilly. The block from Buaben in particular was top class and drew applause from home fans as well as the visiting ones, more than 1,400 of whom were installed in a corner behind Gordon’s goal.
A smaller than normal allocation of away tickets meant it was not quite as raucous as it has been in the past between these two teams. For a few moments at the start, it felt like the game might reflect the more becalmed scenes in the stands.
Celtic were in almost complete control from kick-off. They dominated possession of the ball like children guarding newly-opened Christmas toys. Hearts were bystanders, left to chase shadows on a beautiful winter’s afternoon in Gorgie.
The home fans were in desperate need of something to perk them up and they were given it by Reilly’s dogged determination as he harassed Dedryck Boyata into a rushed clearance. That was all that was required for Tynecastle, or at least the home areas, to make some noise. The tempo on the pitch was raised too.
But the biggest cheer of the opening 35 minutes was reserved not for a piece of play. Instead, it was to greet the appearance of a Celtic substitute. Efe Ambrose entered the scene to ironic applause after a knock ended Boyata’s afternoon. Hearts fans clearly relished the thought of a defensive foul-up by the Nigerian helping create the first goal.
They were almost right since Ambrose failed his first test when Reilly turned him with ease. The former Queen of the South striker shrugged off the defender’s attempt to rectify matters and then hit a low drive towards goal, which Gordon deflected wide.
Indeed, Hearts had come even closer to scoring a couple of minutes earlier when Buaben’s attempt to turn Nicholson’s cross into the net was thwarted by a brilliant block by Gordon, low to his left. The Hearts fans’ hunch that a goal might come from a defensive slip proved to be correct. It just wasn’t Ambrose who was at fault. And nor was it to the home team’s benefit. Horrifyingly for the Hearts supporters, it was Blazej Augustyn who endured a brain fade as he became stranded when challenging for a ball that wasn’t his to contest.
Callum McGregor’s intelligent slide-rule pass evaded Morgaro Gomis and ran into the path of Nir Bitton, who had made a dangerous break from midfield to take advantage of Augustyn’s impulsive act. The Celtic midfielder took a touch before calmly angling a shot into the far corner of Neil Alexander’s net.
Coming three minutes before half-time, it was the perfect time to score. Providing you can ensure it is the opposition who are sitting stewing about the loss of a goal.
Perhaps summing up the current Celtic, they weren’t able to do this. Instead, it was they who spent half-time mired in an inquest which sought to uncover how Buaben was given time and space to deliver a cross flicked into the corner of the net by Nicholson, inset left, on the stroke of half-time.
Admittedly, Mikael Lustig, the one Celtic defender covering the back post, might also have got a touch, but it was still a fine goal from Nicholson, whose determination to be on the end of the ball counted for everything.
The clash was as keenly contested as ever. Injuries interrupted the flow but they were not sustained due to foul play. Stuart Armstrong joined Boyata on the sidelines after departing early with a hamstring strain, while Arnaud Djoum, the Hearts midfielder, also retired hurt, replaced by Miguel Pallardo. He’d barely got into his stride before Celtic edged ahead again. Bitton provided the assist, setting Tom Rogic up on the edge of the box.
The Australian did the rest with a well-hit, left-foot shot that grazed the underside of the bar. It was a goal fit to win any game and seemed set to stand as the elegant final word. But Hearts’ resilience combined with Sow’s ambition thwarted Celtic at the death.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, Rossi, Augustyn, Oshaniwa, Buaben, Djoum (Pallardo 62), Gomis (Zanatta 87), Nicholson, Reilly (King 80), Sow. Subs not used: Hamilton, Ozturk, McGhee, Swanson. Booked: Augustyn. Goals: Nicholson 45+1; Sow 90+1.
Celtic: Gordon, Lustig, Simunovic, Boyata (Ambrose 33), Tierney, Bitton, Johansen, McGregor, Rogic (Mackay-Steven 78), Armstrong (Forrest 20), Ciftci. Subs not used: Bailly, Allan, Cole, Izaguirre. Booked: Johansen, Ciftci, Ambrose. Goals: Bitton 42; Rogic 70.
Referee: Steven McLean