At times there was badger-baiting levels of brutality on show at Tynecastle. Ultimately, dogged Hearts bared their teeth just that bit more ravenously to leave Celtic “licking their wounds”, as Brendan Rodgers so aptly put it afterwards.
There seem to be bite marks puncturing the aura of the Scottish champions from all manner of sources at the minute. With ferocity, and the one moment of true finesse supplied by Kyle Lafferty’s exquisite 57th minute match-winning strike, Craig Levein’s side added to the lesions caused by tensions over transfer strategy, the stand-off with Dedryck Boyata over his desperation to depart and the grazing caused by the 1-1 draw with AEK Athens that leaves the club’s Champions League qualifying prospects hanging by a thread.
Levein acknowledged that the confrontation in Gorgie being sandwiched between the two legs of Celtic’s third round qualifier probably played for them, with Rodgers making five changes from midweek. The Champions League is worth “a hell of a lot more money to them than beating Hearts in a league game,” the Hearts manager said. “I’m absolutely positive he was confident he could do both.”
But Hearts did not let that happen. Aside from a Leigh Griffiths effort cleared off the line in 45 minutes that brought a twist-in-the-turf hamstring injury for Christophe Berra, in the rough and tumble of the first period, they should have had a penalty when Jozo Simunovic pushed Steven Naismith, and they demonstrated an appetite for the fray Celtic struggled to suppress. That was especially true of Uche Ikpeazu, the biggest of big units, who gave Simunovic a torrid time.
The Croatian hardly helped himself, and with Celtic having seemed to begin the second period on the front foot, a ball played straight to Olly Lee led to the decisive moment. The midfielder fed Ikpeazu down the right and his precise cutback was pounced on by Lafferty. Without breaking stride, the Northern Irish international met the ball first-time with the outside of his left foot and sent it whizzing into the bottom left-hand corner of Craig Gordon’s net.
Levein’s men never yielded thereafter, despite Rodgers throwing on his big hitters in Odsonne Edouard, Tom Rogic and James Forrest. The fitness levels and fierce competitive spirit that the Hearts manager made it his mission over the summer to ramp up shone through. Another vindication of their summer activities lay in the fact that Lafferty’s contribution was only made possible by the decision to rebuff a £200,000 offer from Rangers for the forward.
“I just don’t think the bid valued Kyle at any level,” Levein said on that. “He scored 19 goals for us last season, three against Celtic. That’s another one against Celtic, so in these games, in particular, that would tell you he’s a valuable asset.”
Hearts have the assets and the aggression to make their home surrounds invaluable. Their success today put them top of the table after two games and could leave Celtic in uncharted territory for the Rodgers regime in putting them midtable. The fact that Celtic’s defeat comes in the middle of a three-game run across seven days could not be an “excuse”, said the Parkhead manager, regardless of how “tough” that schedule might be.
“I think it was a close game,” the Irishman said. “I felt that we coped with the physicality very well. Coming here you know that Craig’s teams are physical and get the ball up early but I thought we coped with that really well. We played with a calmness in the first half and then created one or two chances. Obviously when you cope with the physicality you don’t expect to give the ball away in your build-up play. That was our disappointment.
“Under no pressure we give it away and, in fairness to Kyle Lafferty, it was a really, really good finish, but we still had some time to create problems for them but we never really were clean enough in the final third of the pitch so you end up losing a really tight game. But congratulations to Hearts, they get their victory and we have to lick our wounds and move on.”