As with the teams’ meeting at the start of December, there was a 60 minute/30 minute split to this encounter at Tynecastle won 2-1 by Ange Postecoglou’s men in which players were transformed - in both upwardly and downwardly mobile fashion.
Elan and excellence - and Giorgos Giakoumakis a striker for all phases
The focus on the players missing for Celtic - captain Callum McGregor and Kyogo Furuhashi chief among them - overlooked those they could call on. Across a wholly dominant first half for the visitors, buzzing debutant Matt O’Riley - who provided the cross for his team’s second - and Reo Hatate, in only his second game, were central to Celtic leaving Hearts betwixt and between with their passing and movement and interchanges. Jota, in his first start since that last Hearts game, weaved his magic down the left too, with captain Nir Bitton orchestrating as a midfield anchor wih aplomb, picking passes to open up the home team. Hatate’s 30-yard bazooka of an opener was an attention-grabber, but the importance of Giorgos Giakoumakis was crucial in both phases of the game.
All-action, it was a deft flick to make it 2-0, even if he was a shade offside. But, after a series of missed Celtic chances, as Hearts began to take a grip in the second period and Hatate, O’Riley, and Jota understandably started to tire, Giakoumakis continued to make himself a presence. Two goals in two starts inside four days is proof he will feast on service inside the box. His bustle could be crucial for a Celtic team without far from an abundance of physicality. The Greek looks the part.
Slow, slow quick
It will bemuse Robbie Neilson that his players couldn’t get close to Celtic for an hour, couldn’t nick any second balls and were largely supine. Barrie McKay showed brief glimpses, with Liam Boyce starved of service, but such as Cammy Devlin, apart from getting into altercations, Alex Cochrane, Josh Ginnelly and Peter Haring were posted missing.
John Souttar and Craig Halkett also struggled initially, though the Rangers-bound centre-back regained his composure, the Hearts cause not helped by Michael Smith being lost early on to injury, and his replacement Nathaniel Atkinson coughing up possession that led to Hatate’s strike - which wasn’t one of Craig Gordon’s finest moment.
The introduction of Gary Mackay-Steven and Ben Baningime gave the Tynecastle men the drive they were crying out for. It didn’t earn a point because of a Boyce penalty miss - smacking against the post - that will give the Irishman nightmares.
The maligned Celtic defence stands up
No-one considers Celtic’s central defence a strength for Posteocoglou’s men. Yet it was in a fraught close for them last night, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Carl Starfelt were immense as they repelled all. They dealt with aerial threats and cleared their lines with a conviction too often it is assumed the duo - and more particularly the Swede - are considered to lack.
Hearts: Gordon 6; Smith 6 (Atkinson 22, 6), Souttar 7, Halkett 6 (Halliday 6), Kingsley 5; Ginnelly 5 (Simms 46 6), Devlin 6 (Baningime 7), Haring 5, Cochrane 5 (Mackay-Steven 58, 6); Boyce 6, McKay 6.
Celtic: Hart 6; Juranovic 6, Carter-Vickers 7, Starfelt 7, Taylor 6; Bitton 8; Forrest 6, O’Riley 7 (McCarthy 85, , Hatate 7 (Soro 90+2, 4, Jota 7 (Abada 6); Giakoumakis 8.