CELTIC 3 HEARTS 1
PATRICK ROBERTS took centre stage to become Celtic’s loan star as the Hoops came back from an early scare to move seven points clear of Aberdeen as they determinedly pursue their fifth successive SPFL title.
The youngster, who agreed an 18-month deal from Manchester City in January, claimed two exquisite goals as Ronny Deila’s side responded well after going behind after only five minutes at Celtic Park.
To be fair, Hearts, after a suffocating display in Glasgow during the goalless draw earlier in the campaign, started brightly on the front foot and Craig Gordon was left helpless when they leapt into the lead.
Robbie Neilsen’s side took advantage when referee Bobby Madden waved play on after Erik Sviatchenko appeared to barged aside by the lumbering Juanma. The Hoops rearguard’s reactions to the danger were suspect when the ball fell to Jamie Walker 25 yards out.
The attacker took a touch, Dedryck Boyata backed off and the Tynecastle youngster strode forward to rifle an unstoppable drive into the roof of the net.
Celtic, though, were quick to get back into the game. In the 14th minute, Leigh Griffiths was fouled by Alim Ozturk 30 yards out and the prolific hitman, seeking to add to his 35-goal haul for the season, whipped in a free-kick that was pushed away for a corner-kick by Neil Alexander.
The ball wasn’t cleared properly when it came in from the left and eventually fell perfectly for Gary Mackay-Steven just outside the box.
He controlled it with his left foot before sizzling an 18-yard effort through the legs of Igor Rossi and low past the Hearts No.1 at his left. It was the perfect answer to Walker’s opener.
Three minutes later, Griffiths had the opportunity to put the Hoops ahead when he was released by a nice pass from Tom Rogic. The striker was running free, but, unfortunately, it was on his weak right foot and his final effort lacked conviction or threat and it was scrambled clear by the outrushing Alexander.
Celtic almost paid a heavy price when Ozrturk curled in a dangerous free-kick from 25 yards that beat Gordon high to his left, but the ball struck the top of the crossbar on its way to safety.
In 34 minutes, Juanma was worryingly left in acres of space as a ball was delivered by Sam Nicholson on the right. The frontman, inside the six-yard box, hurried his shot, though, and skied the ball high and wide. It was a wake-up call for the champions.
A minute later, Roberts scored the first of his dazzling double to give Deila’s men the interval lead.
A lot of the credit must go to Rogic who fought for a ball on the right wing before bringing it inside and releasing the rampaging Roberts at exactly the right moment.
The tricky winger needed just one touch as Alexander frantically left his line – and it was a beauty. He lofted the ball over the stranded Hearts shotstopper with the outside of his left foot and the ball sailed into the far corner.
It was the young Englishman’s first goal for Celtic and it was a cracker. The kid looked fairly pleased, too, as he ran behind the goal to accept the applause of the adoring fans.
There was a flashpoint just before the interval when Rogic and Junon Oshinawa clashed heads in an aerial duel. The Aussie attempted to play on, but was replaced in first-half stoppage time by Nir Bitton. His opponent was booked for his troubles and it got worse in the fading moments of the game when he was red-carded after a lunge on the Israeli midfielder.
Prince Bauben got involved in the first-half incident when he clearly pushed Griffiths in the face. He was fortunate not to be ordered off for raising his hands to an opponent and he and Griffiths were both yellow-carded by the match official.
The second-half restarted where the first had left off and the Hoops could have scored a third in the 46th minute. Roberts, revelling on the right wing, fired in a corner-kick that was headed goalwards by Boyata. Griffiths, from about three yards, got a flick on the ball, but it was touched to the side by Alexander and Bauben thumped it off the line.
The third goal was merely delayed until the 49th minute, however, as Roberts put his stamp on the game with a magnificent finish from outside the box.
Kieran Tierney started it with a neat header down to Bitton who knocked it onto Griffiths. He picked out Stefan Johansen who directed it wide to Roberts, coming in from the wing. He took a couple of touches, sized up the situation and curled a lovely effort wide of Alexander to the keeper’s right.
There was no way back for Hearts after that. Today was the first time in 17 games they have scored the first goal and not gone onto win, so that says a lot about the Hoops performance.
Alexander made a couple of routine stops as Celtic turned the screw, but the save of the game came at the other end in the last couple of minutes when Gordon acrobatically tipped away a raging header from six yards by Arnaud Djoum that was hurtling into the top corner.
In a remarkable duel in the first-half, Griffiths fired in three wicked free-kicks on target and Alexander managed to save the lot. The first was at full-stretch to his right as he conceded the corner-kick from which Mackay-Steven got the leveller.
The second wasn’t so convincing from the Hearts No.1 as he nervously beat away another 25-yard effort and, right on the interval, he catapulted high to his right to touch another whizzbang attempt to safety.
Griffiths, though, had to concede defeat for his second successive game for the champions after drawing a blank against Kilmarnock. He was replaced by Colin Kazim-Richards with 12 minutes to go and, correctly, received his due recognition from the home support. Although he didn’t get on the scoresheet, the international hitman was lively throughout.
After two pervious draws against the Edinburgh outfit, this win means Celtic have now beaten every team in the Premiership.
All eyes are now on Pittodrie tomorrow lunchtime when Aberdeen take on Hamilton Accies as they attempt to claw back three points in the race for the crown.
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig, Sviatchenko, Boyata, Tierney; Brown, Johansen; Roberts, Rogic (sub: Bitton 45), Mackay-Steven (sub: McGregor 64); Griffiths (sub: Kazim-Richards 78).