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|<-Page||<-Team||Sat 04 Nov 2006 Celtic 2 Hearts 1||Team->||Page->|
|<-Srce||<-Type||Scotsman ------ Report||Type->||Srce->|
|Eduard Malofeev||<-auth||Barry Anderson||auth->||Craig Thomson|
|[J Jarosik 86] ;[Gordon Craig og 94]|
|16||of 016||Andrius Velicka 72||L SPL||A|
A bitter pill for Hearts to take
Celtic 2 Hearts 1
IF cruelty were a commodity, then Hearts would be market leaders. Saturday's late capitulation to Celtic grated not only with those of a maroon persuasion, but with everyone in Scottish football who craves an exciting and open championship race.
Gordon Strachan's 13-point cushion at the SPL summit doesn't quite conclude this season's SPL, regardless of Paddy Power's reckoning, but the task facing Hearts and Rangers is now evermore daunting following a Celtic escape that would put Houdini to shame.
After one of the most inspirational performances delivered by an away side at Parkhead, the hosts succeeded in overhauling Hearts' single-goal advantage to squeeze three points from an afternoon when they scarcely deserved one. In doing so, they created a lingering feeling of injustice that would still have been foremost in the minds of Paul Hartley and others as they arrived for training at Riccarton this morning.
Craig Gordon was especially down following his late faux pas, when a Stephen McManus shot slipped from his grasp to creep over the line and gift Celtic a winning goal. But, when you consider the gravity-defying saves produced by the Scotland goalkeeper in recent seasons, chastising him for one error would be churlish in the extreme.
The defiance of Celtic should not be overlooked, for such resilience is in the make-up of true champions. Staring miserably at a 1-0 deficit with four minutes remaining and still managing to score twice to effect victory is indeed a noteworthy feat, although their first goal remains a disputed with scorer Jiri Jarosik having appeared to impede Ibrahim Tall in the lead-up.
But as Hearts trudged from the field in dejection, the consolation of their marked improvement in attitude and application was something to cling to.
If last week's draw with Dunfermline was insipid, then Saturday was thoroughly refreshing for acting head coach Eduard Malofeev. It is suspected that Steven Pressley's momentous media statement ten days ago was, in part, a veiled jibe at an indisciplined foreign element within the Hearts dressing room. The Lithuanians were thought to be specifically guilty of not accepting responsibility and, if Pressley's words were intended for their ears, then their response was exceptional.
Four Lithuanians started this match - Marius Zaliukas, Deividas Cesnauskis, Saulius Mikoliunas and Andrius Velicka. Each and every one ran themselves breathless for the cause, with the regularly mocked Mikoliunas finally giving a hint of why he is such a favoured son of majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov. He held his position, he tracked back, he tackled and sprung forward in support of lone striker Velicka whenever possible. The only criticism that could be levelled at Mikoliunas surrounded his finishing, which ultimately proved costly to Hearts for a second goal would have finished Celtic for the afternoon.
"We could've been two goals up and you always know that a second goal is likely to be needed at a place like Celtic Park," lamented Hartley. "But I thought we were very comfortable and played ever so well.
"I think that's the best we have played for a long time. The tactics were fantastic, the way we passed the ball and looked good going forward. The midfield was set up with myself, Marius and Bruno [Aguiar] and it was very attack-minded. We were pleased with our performance, although not the result."
Hearts were expected to suffer in an organisational sense with Pressley absent due to illness, however the truth is they were distinctly unperturbed. The 4-1-4-1 formation Malofeev settled on was a safer bet than the previous weekend's 3-4-3 against Dunfermline. Two of last week's midfield retreated to defence in Robbie Neilson and Ibrahim Tall, which accommodated Zaliukas as a holding midfielder but not supporters' idol Julien Brellier.
Zaliukas twice suffered injuries during the match and Brellier was, on both occasions, ordered to remove his substitute's clothing and prepare to enter the fray as a replacement. However both times it was decided that Zaliukas would remain in place.
Malofeev even emerged from his technical area to blatantly shove the Lithuanian back on to the park in the dying minutes rather than utilise the out-of-favour Frenchman. Brellier's disgust was evident as he threw his tracksuit top to the floor before retaking his seat on the bench.
"I don't know about the situation with Julien and the club owner," commented Hartley. "I'm not sure about what stage contract talks are at but you would normally want your best players in the team and he was one of our best players last season in that holding role."
Celtic played the bulk of the opening period in Hearts' half without genuinely threatening. That was due to the protection the visiting defenders enjoyed from the presence of Zaliukas and four other midfielders. However in the 19th minute Shunsuke Nakamura waltzed passed Mikoliunas, Goncalves and Hartley before his shot from distance was comfortably collected by Gordon.
Three minutes later, the Scotland goalkeeper was granted his one slice of luck for the day. After a neat interchange of passes by Nakamura, Kenny Miller and Maciej Zurawski, the Pole unleashed a less than ferocious shot which Gordon spilled to the onrushing Miller. The former Hibernian striker could not control his first-time effort as he took to the air though, and Hartley cleared up.
Jose Goncalves, playing only the second match of his comeback, was looking less than comfortable when in possession of the ball, although he had no such issues in aerial duals with any of the Celtic forwards.
One miscued clearance from the Portuguese brought communication issues to the fore in the Hearts technical area, a situation likely to become all the more familiar in the coming weeks. As Malofeev verbally slated his defender, he turned to assistant coach John McGlynn and yelled something in Russian. McGlynn's shrug of the shoulders told the entire story.
Yet Hearts, at times, displayed the kind of on-field coherence that Malofeev and McGlynn had intended all along. On the half-hour they fashioned their best chance down the left through Mikoliunas and Velicka. The pair played a neat one-two with Velicka's precise return pass allowing Mikoliunas to scamper clear of Paul Telfer and confront Artur Boruc with the ball. However, the delay as he entered the penalty area cost the winger dearly and by the time he dispatched his shot defenders were back and Boruc managed to deflect the ball clear.
Seconds later Cesnauskis made off down the opposite flank and cut the ball back to present Velicka with a similarly open opportunity, but the striker hit his shot tamely across the face of goal with Boruc's net begging to be burst. Those misses served to exemplify a lack of conviction about Malofeev's side, for Celtic were looking less than imperious when Hearts had the confidence to attack. In particular, the sweeping balls on top of full-backs Lee Naylor and Telfer were upsetting the hosts.
Velicka headed a half chance wide from a Mikoliunas knockdown, and at half-time Malofeev's instructions seemed to be being delivered to the letter. Celtic were being outplayed and, five minutes after the restart, Mikoliunas fired another opportunity wide from a tight angle as the Celtic defence remained static, convinced the Lithuanian had run the ball out.
Strachan looked on at his disjointed side, whilst Hearts were looking unrestrainable as they grew in confidence. Evander Sno was dispossessed in midfield by Velicka, who powered his way to the edge of the home penalty area before striking a ball wildly in to the Lisbon Lions stand. On 69 minutes, sub Nerijus Barasa's long ball was taken down by Velicka. As the Celtic players complained of a hand being used, the burly striker volleyed a dipping shot just over Boruc's crossbar.
The protests continued from the home side and Neil Lennon was cautioned for dissent by referee Craig Thomson, who was giving an excellent display of officiating at one of Britain's most intimidating venues. With Strachan and his players beginning to vent their dissatisfaction and with team discipline suffering as a result, Hearts seized their moment.
Aguiar intercepted the ball in midfield and poked it through to the outstanding Velicka. A surprising turn of pace took the forward clear of McManus to calmly slot the ball low to Boruc's right from 18 yards, and the celebrations that followed involved every outfield Hearts player. Even substitute Edgaras Jankauskas, who had been warming up behind Boruc's goal, was on the pitch.
It was indeed an inspiring moment. This was what Romanov, seated in the Parkhead directors' box, had envisaged for some time: Hearts ahead and in control of a game in one of the Old Firm cauldrons, with a Lithuanian doing the principle damage. "We're Only Here for the Party," chanted the visiting support.
Yet the tendency to shoot themselves in the foot again manifested itself when Malofeev carried out a strange substitution, replacing Aguiar, Hearts' best ball-retainer, with Takis Fyssas. The Greek appeared unsure of whether he was to take up position in midfield or retreat to form a five-man back line and, ultimately, the visitors suffered with Zaliukas by now hobbling around due to a knee injury.
Celtic moved forward to force a corner after Gordon chose to head the ball off his own goal line. From Nakamura's set-piece, substitute Jiri Jarosik engaged in a grappling session with Tall as he lunged to nod the equaliser. Gordon then touched a free-kick by the Japanese on to the post. Celtic were turning the screw.
In the fourth and final minute of stoppage time, another Nakamura corner fell at the feet of Gary Caldwell. He dug it forward to McManus whose shot was deflected into the air by Gordon. As the keeper reacted instantly to catch the dropping ball, it squirmed from his grasp and past Robbie Neilson at the near post for the winner. It was a sickening way for Hearts to end the afternoon, yet Celtic's character had clawed them another vital three points.
Back in April, Hearts provided one of the most dominant displays ever seen at Celtic Park but lost 1-0 as the hosts clinched the title. On Saturday, a similar scenario unfolded. Whether it proves pivotal to this season's championship can only be determined by the reaction from Tynecastle in future fixtures.
Taken from the Scotsman
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