HEARTS’ bid to overhaul Aberdeen in the battle for second place in the Premiership appears to have fizzled out after clinical Celtic handed them a second consecutive defeat.
The Tynecastle side looked in a good position to end their nine-year wait for a league win at Parkhead when Jamie Walker gave them an early lead.
However, despite playing well for long periods, Robbie Neilson’s team found themselves trailing 3-1 by the 48th minute after a fine equaliser from Gary Mackay-Steven and a couple of superbly-taken goals from on-loan Manchester City teenager Patrick Roberts. Juwon Oshaniwa’s late dismissal for a second bookable offence exacerbated a defeat that leaves Hearts nine points behind second-place Aberdeen with just seven games to play.
Neilson made five changes to the side that started the 3-0 loss at home to St Johnstone a fortnight previously as Alim Ozturk, Igor Rossi, Sam Nicholson, Prince Buaben and Oshaniwa came in for Blazej Augustyn, Jordan McGhee, Liam Smith, Don Cowie and Abiola Dauda.
Oshaniwa’s inclusion was the biggest surprise of the visitors’ team selection and the Nigerian, who hadn’t featured in any of his team’s previous five matches, was deployed as left wing-back in a 3-5-1-1 formation.
Hearts took the lead with their first attempt of the game in the fifth minute when Jamie Walker, who was playing just behind lone striker Juanma, pinged a delightful finish high past Craig Gordon from a central position on the edge of the box after being teed up by Juanma.
The visitors had looked comfortable until conceding a free-kick just outside their penalty area in the 13th minute. Leigh Griffiths took it and almost found the top corner, but Neil Alexander reacted superbly to push it behind for a corner. Within a minute, the hosts were level when Mackay-Steven pounced on a partially-cleared corner and rasped home a powerful low shot from just inside the box.
Hearts didn’t let this setback knock them out of their stride, however, and they had a chance to restore their lead in the 16th minute when John Souttar’s long diagonal cross found Oshaniwa all on his own in the box but the Nigerian was unable to control it on his chest, and Gordon gathered.
Celtic threatened a minute later when Tom Rogic released Griffiths on goal but Alexander stood up and ushered the striker wide before making another fine save.
Hearts midfielder Arnaud Djoum got himself into a good position inside the box in the 21st minute after good work by Oshaniwa and Walker to set him up but his low angled shot from 12 yards out ran harmlessly past the far post.
The visitors went close to regaining their advantage when Ozturk curled a 25-yard free-kick off the top of the bar after Juanma had been fouled by Scott Brown.
Hearts carved out another decent opportunity in the 34th minute when Nicholson delivered a low cross from the right, but Juanma hooked his shot over at the near post.
The Tynecastle side were made to pay a minute later when Roberts ran on to a lovely disguised pass from Rogic and burst into the right side of the box before dinking a deft angled finish over Alexander and in at the far post from just outside the six-yard box.
Tempers flared in the 38th minute after Oshaniwa and Rogic clashed heads following a reckless challenge by the Hearts man. Buaben and Griffiths were booked for their part in the melee before Oshaniwa was cautioned after receiving treatment.
Right on half-time Alexander did superbly to save another goalbound free kick from Griffiths.
Hearts’ hopes of fighting back were dealt a blow three minutes into the second half when Roberts took a Johansen lay-off outside the box and burst into the danger area before curling a low shot beyond Rossi and Alexander.
The goal had the effect of taking the sting out of the game. Hearts still enjoyed their fair share of possession, but it wasn’t until the 74th minute, when Ozturk’s header from an Oshaniwa free-kick was saved by Gordon, that they carved out a decent chance to pull one back.
Dauda then went close with an 89th minute header from fellow sub Smith’s cross which was tipped over by Gordon. Hearts’ misery was complete in stoppage time when Oshaniwa received a second yellow card after being contentiously adjudged to have fouled Nir Bitton.
Celtic (4-2-3-1): Gordon; Lustig, Boyata, Sviatchenko, Tierney; Brown, Johansen; Roberts, Rogic (Bitton 45), Mackay-Steven (McGregor 68); Griffiths (Kazim-Richards 77). Subs not used: Fasan, Ambrose, Commons, Forrest. Booked: Brown (24), Griffiths (38)
Hearts (3-5-1-1): Alexander; Ozturk, Souttar, Rossi (Smith 65); Nicholson, Buaben (Dauda 82), Kitchen, Djoum, Oshaniwa; Walker (Reilly 65); Juanma. Subs not used: Hamilton, Augustyn, Pallardo, McGhee. Booked: Buaben (38), Oshaniwa (40), Rossi (46), Kitchen (75). Sent off: Oshaniwa (90).
Ref: Bobby Madden