Celtic 1-2 Hearts: Half time shuffle does the trick as Hearts triumph

THE M8 can be renamed the Road to Hampden on 19 May after Hearts emerged triumphant from a raucous climax to their William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic yesterday.

Craig Beattie’s thumping conversion of a stoppage-time penalty, contentiously awarded for handball against Joe Ledley, set up the highest profile Edinburgh derby in the history of the fixture. For only the second time, and the first since their relatively low key affair at Logie Green way back in 1896, Hibs and Hearts will contest Scottish football’s showpiece club occasion.

In booking their historic return trip to the National Stadium next month, Hearts owed much to the impact of half-time substitute Beattie who laid the platform for victory by setting up Rudi Skacel’s 47th-minute opener. For Celtic manager Neil Lennon, the most telling contribution of his former team-mate Beattie was a considerable source of dismay in conjunction with the performance of referee Euan Norris.

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Having seen Beattie’s penalty negate Gary Hooper’s 87th-minute equaliser for the SPL champions, Lennon was further enraged by Norris’ refusal of a last-gasp penalty claim by Celtic for handball against Andy Webster. Lennon could not contain himself at the final whistle, marching onto the pitch to angrily confront the official.

While Celtic will again nurse a sense of injustice following defeat at Hampden, it will be of little consequence to the Hearts supporters who celebrated as lustily as if the cup had already been collected. They will go into the final as strong favourites, rightly so on this season’s form and their lengthy unbeaten run against Hibs.

This semi-final triumph was a considerable personal success for Paulo Sergio, the Hearts manager who has worked impressively under difficult circumstances. He was rewarded for his half-time tactical switch yesterday and will feel he merited any fortunate breaks which came his way in the dramatic finale to the game.

For Celtic, this was another agonising day at Hampden following their League Cup final defeat to Kilmarnock last month. While their status as Scotland’s leading team this season cannot be diminished, there will be a lingering feeling the season should have delivered so much more.

Ensuring his players retained full focus in the immediate aftermath of last weekend’s title celebrations would have been a priority for Lennon in the build-up to this match and he would have been alarmed by their sloppiness in the opening moments.

Hearts could have taken the lead after just 23 seconds, courtesy of some truly dozy defending by the cup holders. After Glenn Loovens’ hesitancy allowed Scott Robinson to charge the ball down, Kelvin Wilson was woefully short with an attempted pass back to goalkeeper Fraser Forster. Stephen Elliott, deployed as the lone front man in a 4-5-1 formation by Sergio, pounced on the loose ball and raced into the penalty area. Fortunately for Celtic, Forster was more alert than his central defenders and advanced to make a blocking save at the expense of a corner.

There was further encouragement for Hearts when Charlie Mulgrew, one of the new champions’ most consistent performers this season, cheaply lost possession to Ian Black in a dangerous position but the Gorgie men were again unable to capitalise on the error.

Celtic gradually attained a more accustomed level of poise and concentration and began to dominate possession. Kris Commons, deployed in a floating role behind a front pairing of Hooper and Georgios Samaras, saw plenty of the ball and created his team’s first opening with a free-kick from the right which Mikael Lustig headed over.

Hearts’ game plan was highly dependent on the ball-winning tenacity of Black as they sought to subdue Celtic’s midfield creativity. But Black could count himself a little fortunate not to have his afternoon cut short in the 21st minute. Mulgrew was booked for a foul on Black who, in the same incident, then caught Joe Ledley with a follow through studs-up challenge. Referee Norris, who did not initially appear to see Black’s misdemeanour, eventually reproduced his yellow card for the Hearts man.

While increasingly dominant in territorial terms, Celtic were struggling to cut through a robust Hearts defence. Mulgrew’s fine cross from the left presented Hooper with his first sniff of goal but the striker flashed his header wide from eight yards.

A mix-up between Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald and Andy Webster handed Commons the chance to make the breakthrough but his first touch in the penalty area was too heavy and the opportunity was lost.

It took Celtic until the 41st minute to record their first effort on target, Commons shot was comfortably held by MacDonald, but they should have gone ahead on the stroke of half-time when Ki Sung Yueng contrived to head Lustig’s cross against a post from no more than four yards out.

It proved a costly miss as Hearts made the breakthrough two minutes into the second half. Beattie, whose involvement had been in doubt because of injury, replaced Scott Robinson and joined Elliot up front. The change reaped a rich dividend, Beattie helping Black’s pass into the path of Skacel who swept a left foot shot high into the net for his 14th goal of the season.

Having further cemented his already iconic status with the Hearts fans, Skacel was denied a spectacular second goal when his 30-yard left foot shot was kept out by Forster’s fine diving save.

The introduction of Anthony Stokes for Samaras enlivened Celtic in the final half hour. The pressure on Hearts intensified, MacDonald saving well from Commons and Mulgrew, while Ki again headed against a post from close range.

Just as the Hearts fans were striking up their celebratory tunes, Celtic equalised in the 87th minute. Hooper escaped his markers to head home Mulgrew’s cross from close range, albeit amid suspicion of him being in an offside position.

The momentum seemed to be with Celtic at that stage but it was Hearts who plundered a dramatic late winner. A shot from Marius Zaliukas struck Ledley’s elbow but from such close range as to make Norris’ award of a penalty exceptionally harsh. Beattie smashed the kick straight down the middle to beat Forster and was duly booked for his wild celebrations.

Even then, the drama was not over as Celtic screamed for their own penalty in the fourth minute of stoppage time for handball against Webster. Norris, however, was unmoved, judging the ball to have struck the defender’s midriff, and seconds later he blew his whistle to confirm a result which will see a remarkable maroon and green migration to Hampden next month.