Hearts turn up the heat on troubled Celtic

Hearts left Tynecastle buoyed by a burgeoning sense of optimism but the defeat of the defending Premiership champions placed Celtic under even more pressure ahead of their Champions League trip to Greece.

On the back of their first-leg draw with AEK Athens, at Celtic Park, and with the discontent voiced by manager Brendan Rodgers over the board’s lack of action on the transfer front still fresh in the memory, this defeat was the last thing the Glasgow side needed.

Hearts players celebrate Kyle Lafferty's goal. Picture: SNS

Hearts players celebrate Kyle Lafferty's goal. Picture: SNS

With one eye on the money-spinning Euro tie, the decision was taken to rest several key players and the fact that the makeshift line-up proved unable to match the energy and intent of their Gorgie hosts, will only add fuel to the fire that the Celtic gaffer lit under his board in the build up.

Add to that Dedryck Boyata and his agent attempting to orchestrate a move and angered by the club’s refusal to accept a £9m bid from Fulham for him ahead of the English transfer window closing, and things are far from rosy in the East End of Glasgow.

Effectively going on strike, the Belgian defender declared himself injured ahead of the trip to the capital, with his agent speaking out in the media underlining his determination to leave, with the likes of Lazio, Lyon and Sevilla all reportedly showing an interest.

In contrast to a fairly flawless and stress free couple of seasons, the past week has been on to forget.

For Hearts, though, their change in fortunes have been nothing but positive.

Two points clear at the top of the league after the first two rounds of fixtures is a vast improvement on the troubled start to last season.

They too face uncertainty over one of the main players but rather than publicly agitate, last term’s top scorer Kyle Lafferty says he owes his employers the respect of giving his all until any move is agreed. Rangers have not been back with an increased bid since their last paltry sum was knocked back but Lafferty proved his worth against Celtic.

Netting three against the double treble winners last season, he made the decisive contribution on Saturday as well, with a quality finish with the outside of his boot from Uche Ikpeazu’s cut back in the 56th minute.

It was a moment of finesse in a match that was the footballing equivalent of two silverbacks squaring up. A bruising affair, Hearts were a team unencumbered by undue respect for their guests. Roared on by a full Tynecastle and following their game plan perfectly, they rattled their guests with their energy and intensity.

“Maybe that is because our game is not very difficult. We try to keep it simple as possible and we know exactly what our strengths and our weaknesses are,” said summer signing Peter Haring, who was a composed figure despite
 the harem scarem of top flight football in Scotland. “The message our coach gave us was to play with as much energy as possible and I think we did that quite well.

“To beat Celtic in front of a full stadium, at home, it was probably the most special day in my career so far. It means a lot to me and makes me a little bit proud because this was the first time my family was here. It was their first game at Tynecastle Park as well so it was a good day.”

The home side got the vital goal early in the second half but could have also had a penalty before the interval as Jozo Simunovic had a two-handed shove on Steven Naismith. They escaped the referee’s punishment at that moment but Hearts were more damning as they weathered some early pressure from their guests then surprised them with the only goal.

“Yeah, I think that’s their gameplan, to try and make it difficult for you. I thought we dealt with that well during the game but we’ve given them one chance and they’ve taken it,” said Celtic defender Jack Hendry.

Even when Hearts then lost captain Christophe Berra, who damaged his hamstring trying to corral Leigh Griffiths, whose shot was cleared off the line by Michael Smith, the home side looked confident.

They will have to find a way to cope with the loss of Berra in the weeks ahead, but Celtic have the more pressing issue of reviving fortunes, ignoring the negativity of the past week and finding a way to progress in the Champions League.

“Obviously it’s disappointing but I’m sure with the quality we have in our side we’ll bounce back strong,” said Hendry. “I think we’ve got to remain positive. The last game we played against {AEK Athens] I thought we dominated so if we just go over and try to implement our game plan again I’m sure we will do well.”