Hearts 1 - 2 Celtic: Holders through to semi-final

AT A venue which seems to have lost its ability to intimidate as far as Celtic are concerned, their grip on the League Cup was unmoved.
Stefan Johansen and Jordan McGhee battle for possession during the League Cup quarter-final. Picture: Neil HannaStefan Johansen and Jordan McGhee battle for possession during the League Cup quarter-final. Picture: Neil Hanna
Stefan Johansen and Jordan McGhee battle for possession during the League Cup quarter-final. Picture: Neil Hanna

Leigh Griffiths’ 14th goal of the season provided Ronny Deila’s side with the breakthrough in a quarter-final which was sore on the eyes for long periods before substitute Tom Rogic provided the insurance of a second goal.

It was needed when Arnaud Djoum headed home in stoppage time for Hearts, but that proved simply a consolation for Robbie Neilson’s men.

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Celtic have not lost at Tynecastle for four years and they have now racked up seven consecutive wins at the Gorgie ground since then. This was a win to cherish for Deila as holders Celtic booked their place in the semi-finals and helped ease the pressure the Norwegian has been under since last week’s latest European failure in Molde.

Celtic's Leigh Griffiths celebrates after opening the scoring. Picture: SNSCeltic's Leigh Griffiths celebrates after opening the scoring. Picture: SNS
Celtic's Leigh Griffiths celebrates after opening the scoring. Picture: SNS

Deila’s game plan was disrupted before kick-off when his captain, Scott Brown, suffered an injury in the warm-up, forcing a hasty reshuffle of the Celtic line-up with James Forrest promoted to the starting X1. Gary Mackay-Steven also pulled up lame during the warm-up, necessitating further alterations on the bench, with Tyler Blackett and Callum McGregor called from the stand to take their place among the substitutes.

With Mikael Lustig taking the armband from Brown, the visitors seemed largely untroubled by the changes. They largely monopolised possession for much of the opening period, albeit without being able to fashion many clear sights of the Hearts’ goal.

Neilson had made two changes to the team which defeated Ross County last Saturday, Morgaro Gomis and Billy King replacing Djoum in a robust and disciplined 4-4-2 formation.

Forrest had an early opportunity to make the most of his late call into the Celtic side, the Scotland winger seeing a firm netbound shot inadvertently blocked by team-mate Leigh Griffiths on the edge of the six- yard box.

Such was Celtic’s dominance of the ball, there was scope for central defender Jozo Simunovic to venture forward, something it seems will be a feature of the Croatian’s play. He did so to good effect in the 22nd minute, setting up Stuart Armstrong for a shot which was deflected wide for a corner.

Kris Commons then flashed a shot over from around 20 yards when he made more time than he seemed to realise and could have taken more deliberate aim.

Hearts were displaying an admirable work ethic as they contested the midfield battle diligently but struggled to find any fluency or penetration as an attacking force.

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Osman Sow finally provided some encouragement for the home support when he muscled his way beyond Simunovic and drilled in a low shot which drifted just wide of Craig Gordon’s left-hand post.

Perhaps against the expectations of many, it was not an especially physical or fractious contest at this stage. Nonetheless, referee John Beaton saw fit to hand out three yellow cards before half-time. Prince Buaben and Jordan McGhee were the Hearts’ recipients, while Celtic’s Nir Bitton was also cautioned.

Sow’s attempt at goal had sparked a better spell for Hearts, but it was Celtic who came closest to making the breakthrough before the interval. Commons and Griffiths were involved in a good move which allowed Forrest to find space on the right.

His cutback was intended for Armstrong, but the normally sure-footed midfielder got his timing all wrong and was unable to get a shot away from a prime position.

Hearts made their first change of the night eight minutes into the second half, Billy King making way for Jamie Walker as Neilson sought to bring more pace and creativity to his side.

It remained pretty turgid fare, however, with both teams desperately in need of a flash of inspiration from somewhere.

Bitton was treading a dangerous line after his earlier booking and the Hearts players looked imploringly at referee Beaton when the Israeli was penalised for a cynical foul on Sam Nicholson, but a free-kick was the only sanction this time.

Celtic sent on Rogic for the fading Forrest and the big Australian midfielder almost made an immediate impact, shaping a shot not far wide of Neil Alexander’s left-hand post from the edge of the penalty area.

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Hearts fleetingly believed they had grabbed the breakthrough in the 63rd minute when Sow beat Craig Gordon from close range but the big striker was offside as he latched onto Juanma’s knockdown.

That prompted a response from Celtic who suddenly injected greater urgency into their work. It required a brilliant clearance from Jordan McGhee to prevent an Armstrong cross providing Griffiths with a tap-in.

Celtic’s top scorer had been subdued for much of the evening but he burst into life in spectacular fashion to finally end the stalemate in the 71st minute.

Collecting the ball around 30 yards out, Griffiths surged beyond a couple of wrong-footed challenges and into the right side of the penalty area before guiding a precise, right-foot shot beyond Alexander’s right

hand into the far corner of the net.

Griffiths then did himself no favours with a needlessly provocative celebration, choosing to run away from the jubilant Celtic support behind the goal where he had just scored and instead raise his arms to the home fans. It inevitably earned him a booking.

But Griffiths made another positive contribution to firmly settle the tie with eight minutes remaining. Burrowing in from the right, his cutback was cleverly flicked home at the near post by Rogic.

An exciting finale out of synch with what had gone before continued when Hearts substitute Djoum headed home a corner in the second of three minutes stoppage time but a recovery was beyond them.

Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, Rossi, Augustyn, McGhee; Nicholson, Gomis, Buaben (Djoum 81), King (Walker 53); Sow, Juanma (Reilly 87). Subs not used: Hamilton, Swanson, Smith, Zanatta.

Celtic: Gordon, Lustig, Boyata, Simunovic, Izaguirre; Bitton, Johansen; Forrest (Rogic 59), Commons, Armstrong; Griffiths (Ciftci 83). Subs not used: Bailly, Ambrose, Blackett, Tierney, McGregor.