You get to know those sitting near you at Celtic Park, even if only on nodding terms, but yesterday at Murrayfield, we were mostly sitting among new faces, but despite no previous camaraderie, we found a common bond when we considered Craig Levein’s likely response to his teams heavy defeat.
Hearts were poor, very poor. While Celtic were well below par for half the game, Hearts failed to lay a glove on the champions. Then when Celtic took the lead, the league leaders (for now) could neither muster an attack nor hold a defensive line. Any self-respecting manager would hold his hands up and admit as much, but not our Craig.
“A penalty that never was and we had a good goal chopped off”, was the consensus of how Levein would react, which, turned out to be only partially accurate. How that team are top of the league defies explanation. They were only good at getting in the way of Celtic players and occasionally assaulting them off the ball (pun intended).
Celtic’s indifferent start to the season, and potential for a third consecutive treble, were both on display at Murrayfield. The first half was notable only for its lack of penetrative play. Scott Sinclair, who replaced injured Eboue Kouassi on 26 minutes, produced the only serious attempt at goal during that period. Celtic had lots of the ball but were inhibited going forward.
When Callum McGregor (not best in a wide role) moved to the deep lying playmaker position he is most effective at, in the departure of Eboue Kouassi, Celtic improved. But the real improvement came when Ryan Christie replaced Olivier Ntcham at halftime.
Celtic then had a midfield anchored by McGregor, with Christie, Tom Rogic, James Forrest and Sinclair ahead. Lots of tidy ball-players but without an enforcer. It was a risk, but it worked superbly. We have looked ponderous so often this season. Not every game will be suitable for such an attacking formation, but Celtic were a joy to watch.
Despite playing only 45 minutes, Christie was clear Man of the Match. His dart inside the box 8 minutes after the break won the penalty, then his shot was fumbled by Hearts ‘keeper, Zlamal, to allow James Forrest to make sure, but the third goal, a side foot shot to the top left corner of the goal from 22 yards by Christie, was the highlight of the game.
Celtic could easily have had a penalty in the opening period, when Kieran Tierney was scythed down inside the box after crossing, then Hearts tactic of throwing everything in the way of the ball should have seen another spot kick, when one defender blocked with both arms, but these details were irrelevant as Celtic cut Hearts open at will late in the game. This, despite Craig Levein detecting heavy legs in his opponents.
Well, Craig, we can only wonder what a well-rested Celtic team would do to you.
And it’s Aberdeen in the final again. This is the fifth season they have been the last team to make a contest of leagues and cups against Celtic. They have lost their way this year and the league is weaker as a consequence, but we can take nothing for granted.