CELTIC 3 HEARTS 3 (AET: Celtic win 4-3 on pens)
CELTIC walked a tightrope without a safety net in sight as they claimed glorious history at Hampden today.
The Hoops made if difficult for themselves as they threw away a two-goal interval lead and then a 3-2 extra-time advantage before rookie keeper Conor Hazard became the unlikely hero in the penalty-kick shoot.
The young Irishman, who looked very throughout the occasion, stepped up when he was needed most and made two spot-kick saves from Hearts’ Stephen Kingsley and Craig Wighton.
Ryan Christie, who scored the opener in regulation time when it looked as though Neil Lennon’s men were about to ease to their amazing twelfth successive domestic honour, failed with the third penalty after Leigh Griffiths and Callum McGregor had tucked their efforts away.
With the spot-kick shoot-out 3-2 in favour of the Tynecastle side following strikes from Steven Naismith, Michael Smith and Oliver Lee, the Scotland international was defied by his ex-colleague Craig Gordon who swooped to push his attempt away.
Hazard then threw the Hoops a lifeline in only his third first-team appearance when he dived to save from Kingsley.
All eyes were then on Mikey Johnston to knock his attempt past Gordon and he did with some aplomb considering he has hardly kicked a ball in the first team since January.
Wighton then tried to place the ball in the corner, but Hazard spread his 6ft 4in frame across his goal to push the ball away.
Then it was all down to Kristoffer Ajer to keep his cool. The Norwegian dispensed with any of the elegance of dispatching a penalty-kick as he smashed it full force just off centre as Gordon took off for his left.
As the ball nestled in the net, Celtic had completed the most amazing sequence of results in the history of Scottish football. And they did it the hard way.
Beaming Scott Brown celebrated his 22nd honour as a club legend after playing a massive part until he was taken off at the start of the second-half in extra-time. There were some who doubted the 35-year-old’s qualities ahead of the eventful Hampden confrontation, but the captain had the last laugh – yet again!
He put in a Man of the Match performance before he was forced to withdraw with Ismaila Soro coming on his place. The evergreen performer thought he had done enough to set up the team for a breathtaking triumph at the end of the first period of extra-time.
With praiseworthy determination, he threw himself at a right-wing corner-kick from Christie to bullet a header goalwards. Gordon managed to push it away, but it fell invitingly to substitute Griffiths who rifled the rebound into the net.
That looked like being the goal to settle a pulsating grand finale, but there was more drama when the Hoops defence failed to deal with another set-play. in the 111th minute when Hazard failed to clear his lines with a rash race from his line and Josh Ginnelly forced in the Edinburgh team’s third goal.
Celtic could only blame themselves. From being in total control of the confrontation, they invited their rivals back into the match with some woeful defending. And players such as Christie and McGregor will have to leasrn how to tackle properly and refrain from giving away needless free-kicks in and around the area where a cross will bring a threat.
Everything looked as though it was going according to plan, with Neil Lennon’s men in the ascendancy in the first-half with warhorse Brown showing them how it’s done as he strolled through the opening period, tackling, fetching, carrying and passing.
The Edinburgh outfit, who knocked out Steven Gerrard’s Ibrox outfit and Hibs to reach this stage, were not about to perform as bit-part players and put themselves about in an attempt to disrupt the champions and referee John Beaton had a collection of their names at the final whistle to prove it.
However, they found themselves on the back-foot before the half-hour mark as Lennon’s men netted two goals – a sublime curling left-foot effort from Christie from outside the box and an exquisite penalty-kick from Odsonne Edouard as he flummoxed former team-mate Craig Gordon.
The goals gave Celtic some breathing space as they settled into their rhythm at the empty stadium in a game that really deserved a capacity crowd to enjoy the thrills and spills before the Parkhead men annexed their place in football’s Hall of Fame following the nail biting penalty-kick shoot-out climax.
Christie arced in the opener in the 19th minute after an Ajer cross had been half-cleared by Aidy White. The classy Highlander controlled the ball in an instant and then hurtled an unstoppable shot high past Gordon at his right-hand side.
Ten minutes later, the Hoops doubled their advantage after Christophe Berra was adjudged to have handled a Shane Duffy header following a David Turnbull left-wing corner-kick.
The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and Edouard nonchalantly lobbed his effort down the middle of the goal as Gordon took off for his right. The keeper was so unhappy he grabbed the ball from the back of his net and threw it at the goalscorer to earn himself a bizarre booking.
However, it all started to unravel for the history-chasers only three minutes after the interval when Liam Bryce was given time and space to get on the end of an Andy Halliday left-wing cross to head beyond the exposed Hazard at his right-hand post.
And it didn’t get any better for the young Irishman when he failed to deal with a left-wing corner-kick – not helped by Niasmith leaning into him – and Kinglsey squeezed in the equaliser at the back post in the 67th minute.
There were some nervy moments in front of the shotstopper and Edouard missed two reasonable chances to score at the other end, but was off target on both occasions. It was one of those days when nothing was sticking to the Frenchman and it was no surprise when he made way for Griffiths in the 99th minute.
Lennon put on a blizzard of substitutes – six in total – as he tried to swing the game in favour of the Hoops.
Then came the additional thrills when Griffiths scored and Hearts, remarkably, answered with a third goal of their own.
Hazard produced the goods to complete a fairy tale to win a Scottish Cup medal in only his third game.
But it really was a case of the young and the old on a day of destiny for Celtic Football Club.
Questions had been asked of captain Scott Brown before this game. He answered them with a defiance you would expect of someone who has won 22 honours at Celtic in his 13 years.
If anyone deserves to be billed as a History Bhoy it is the team’s onfield leader.
And you just know he has not stopped with medal collection just yet.
TEAM: Hazard; Ajer, Duffy (sub: Johnston 91), Jullien; Christie, Brown (sub: Soro 106), Turnbull (sub: Rogic 68), McGregor, Taylor (sub: Laxalt 82); Elyounoussi (sub:Frimpong 82) ; Edouard (sub: Griffiths 99).