Scot­tish cham­pi­ons make no mis­take in cap­i­tal as Park­head side ex­tend lead at top


Hearts 0 Celtic 2

THAT there is a huge gulf be­tween Celtic and Hearts given the fi­nan­cial ad­van­tages the former en­joys is self-ev­i­dent. But there shouldn’t be 10 teams be­tween them in the Pre­mier­ship ta­ble, and the gulf in qual­ity should not be the chasm it so clearly was here at Tynecas­tle.

His­tor­i­cally, a visit to Hearts is one that, if not to be dreaded, is a chal­lenge wor­thy of the re­spect of any do­mes­tic op­po­nent. All the ad­mirable ef­fort ex­pended by their play­ers last night though could not mask the in­escapable fact that this Hearts team, and squad, are sim­ply not good enough.

New Hearts man­ager Daniel Sten­del will know this, and will hope to rec­tify that sit­u­a­tion in Jan­uary. Judg­ing by his re­ac­tion to some of the fare dished out by his play­ers here, a few of them will be lucky to still be around come Fe­bru­ary.

First-half goals from Ryan Christie and Olivier Ntcham sucked much of the life out of Tynecas­tle and brought Celtic through a rocky open­ing to even­tu­ally cruise to another three points. They move five points clear at the top as they seek the eight-point cush­ion Neil Len­non has tar­geted by the win­ter break.

Sten­del is still get­ting a feel

– or rather, a rude awak­en­ing – of what he has at his dis­posal, and there were five changes to his line-up from the side that went down so des­per­ately to St John­stone here at the week­end as a re­sult. Joel Pereira came back in be­tween the sticks, and there was an in­ter­est­ing tweak with the de­ploy­ment of Michael Smith in mid­field.

Christie re­cov­ered from a knock to take Tom Rogic’s place in the Celtic team that beat Hibs on Sun­day, while Jonny Hayes shook off his shoul­der prob­lem to come in for Bolin­goli at left-back as Len­non re­verted to his pre­ferred back four.

It was a crisp night in the cap­i­tal, and the pitch looked heavy and even a lit­tle bare in places. A sec­ond-half deluge didn’t help ei­ther. It was never likely to be a night of foot­ball for purists in any case, and so it proved in a fran­tic open­ing as both teams strug­gled to find a team-mate with a pass.

Sten­del (inset) must have won­dered what he had wan­dered into, look­ing a lit­tle be­mused at what passed as foot­ball in these parts. Still, Hearts were press­ing ef­fec­tively, winning a cor­ner from Kristof­fer Ajer by pin­ning him back through sheer weight of numbers, which got a roar of ap­proval from the home sup­port.

Celtic looked a lit­tle rat­tled, and Scott Brown picked up a cau­tion for hack­ing down young Aaron Hickey in the mid­field. Goal­mouth ac­tion was a lit­tle harder to come by, but Oliver Bozanic did glance a header a cou­ple of yards wide to of­fer Hearts fur­ther en­cour­age­ment.

Celtic just couldn’t get any­thing go­ing at all in an at­tack­ing sense in these early stages, with Hearts do­ing a de­cent job of smoth­er­ing the two full-backs by means fair or some­times foul when the oc­ca­sion de­manded it.

And then, from al­most nowhere, the vis­i­tors put to­gether their first mean­ing­ful move of the game and stunned Tynecas­tle by tak­ing the lead. Brown helped the ball on to Cal­lum Mc­Gre­gor in mid­field, and he pro­duced a lovely ball over the top for James For­rest to kill and feed in­side to Od­sonne Edouard. It looked as though For­rest and Christie were go­ing to get in each other’s way as they both latched onto the for­ward’s re­turn ball, but the hith­erto pe­riph­eral Christie took charge and pro­duced a pin­point fin­ish into Pereira’s bot­tom left-hand cor­ner. Hearts were dealt a fur­ther blow as Jamie Bran­don was forced off through in­jury, leav­ing Sean Clare to fill in at right-back up against For­rest. Smith’s lim­i­ta­tions as a mid­fielder were then ex­posed as Mc­Gre­gor robbed him as he dal­lied in pos­ses­sion, play­ing Edouard in, but his heavy touch let Pereira smother. There was a fur­ther let-off sec­onds later as For­rest was in on goal, but the winger dragged his ef­fort wide of the near post. Hearts were wide open, and when they lost pos­ses­sion again, Celtic ex­ploited the space ruth­lessly to fi­nally get their sec­ond. Brown sent For­rest scam­per­ing away down the left with only Christophe Berra back be­tween him and Edouard. It looked as though the winger had held onto the ball too long, but he hit the by­line and pulled back for the ar­riv­ing Ntcham to bril­liantly side-foot home from an awk­ward height.

Clare tried to in­ject a bit of life back into the sta­dium af­ter the break, drift­ing in­side a cou­ple of chal­lenges be­fore fir­ing wide, but Celtic thought they had killed Hearts off mo­ments later. Edouard should have scored as he danced around the area with the ball, elect­ing to shoot only when Hickey had got him­self back to block, be­fore Mc­Gre­gor poked home the re­bound. He looked across to see no flag from the as­sis­tant, but as he turned to cel­e­brate with the Celtic fans, the arm was be­lat­edly raised.

Mc­Gre­gor then swung in a cross from a short cor­ner that Edouard headed off the far post, be­fore Smith barged through at the other end only to be foiled by Fraser Forster.

Edouard had another chance at the back post as he got on the end of Christie’s free-kick, but Pereira blocked first from him and then again from Mc­Gre­gor.

That just about kept the game as a live con­test, but the end re­sult was never in doubt from the mo­ment Christie first found the Hearts net.

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