Celtic coasted to victory against high-flying Hearts with a scoreline that underlines just how difficult a prolonged title challenge really is. Having defeated Champions Rangers at Tynecastle at the weekend, the buoyant Edinburgh side hoped for a similar smash and grab against the other side of the Old Firm. But it turned into an easy victory for Neil Lennon’s Hoops as the Jambos capitulated without too much of a fight.
With a self-inflicted mini-crisis in central defence, Lennon called upon Charlie Mulgrew to fill in alongside Thomas Rogne to make the same backline as the 2nd half against Aberdeen on Saturday. In a pre-match press conference Rogne also pointed out that Mark Wilson can also play in this position if required (as per the 2-1 victory over Rangers last May) but the fact there are no bona fide centre-backs available is still of great concern. Kelvin Wilson will join from Nottingham Forest in July at the latest and Peter Lawwell has been desperate to negotiate a January transfer (at a price) but this has stalled. So for now Celtic hope for the much-maligned Glenn Loovens to return as soon as possible.
Last week’s profile of Scott Brown considered Lennon’s options in fitting Kayal, Ledley and Brown into the side, and as discussed Brown was selected on the right hand side of a four man midfield. This has been extremely rare (albeit not for Scotland) and perhaps reserved for the toughest of games that require a defensively sound display – 1st versus 3rd against an ambitious, attacking side qualifies under this criteria and so Ledley was accommodated in the centre. 3 centre mids on the field, 1 centre-back – but it worked.
Hooper and Stokes continued their exciting partnership up front, the underwhelming Niall McGinn made way and James Forrest returned from suspension to start high-up on the left.
In the previous encounter at Tynecastle, Hearts played an attractive high-pressing 4-3-3 and ended up winning comfortably. But off the back of a fine win over Rangers, Jim Jefferies retained the same formation and starting 11 – a counter-attacking 4-4-1-1.
Kevin Kyle is a massive loss for Hearts, although Saturday’s result proves they are still a potent outfit. But Stephen Elliott doesn’t have anywhere near the same presence and was slightly marooned up top, unable to hold possession and lacking genuine support. Stevenson was charged with providing this linkup but on such a large pitch and with Celtic’s defence recently finding safety and organisation deeper in their own territory, the two forwards had a lot of ground to cover and their attacking impetus was lost.
One of Hearts’ other major attackers – David Templeton – played a significant part in the game, at least early on. Desperate to get forward and use his pace bursting up the line, he effectively cancelled himself and Emilio Izaguirre out of the game. The Celtic left-back was fairly content to stay deep and keep Templeton isolated, but at the other end this spelled trouble for Eggert Jonsson. Recently Celtic’s most gifted wide players have been double-marked in quite straightforward fashion. Typically the winger will track back to help out his full-back (although a deep midfielder might also contribute.) But with Templeton so far away, James Forrest had effectively a “square go” with Jonsson. And with Hearts’ relatively high-line, this proved crucial in the opening goal. A cross-field pass found Forrest in space, Jonsson naturally tucked in to narrow the angle and prevent a right-footed (favoured) shot, but regardless Forrest went outside on his left and rifled in a brilliant effort from the narrowest of angles. Worryingly Forrest was replaced soon after due to seemingly a ham-string pull, inflicted sprinting after another threaded through pass behind Jonsson.
Being a goal down so soon (7 minutes) is terrible news for a team visiting Parkhead. The plan is normally to at least keep a clean sheet until the first quarter is over, and count on Celtic’s impatience to be their own undoing. But now Hearts had to push gently forward in search of a reply – the alternative of letting Celtic pick you apart (with the aim of hitting them on the break) is probably deemed to risky.
Hamilton’s Billy Reid made reference to only pressing in their own half, stifling Celtic’s options and this was largely successful – but Hearts pushed on with a defensive line almost as high as half-way. Jefferies was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and on the counter with the passing quality that Celtic possess from deep, even allowing for relatively slow forwards Hearts were stung ruthlessly on the counter. Stokes and Hooper combined for all 3 remaining goals – but they could’ve had more, with the former in particular slightly frustrated with himself.
Game Seen Out
With Hearts’ big players anonymous (both Skacel and Templeton, who were so dangerous at Tynecastle meekly withdrawn) the onus fell on Jefferies’ to make things happen. Stevenson was pushed wide-left, David Obua introduced as a more dynamic link with frontman Calum Elliot, Suso Santana (somewhat of a bogey player for Celtic) caused concern wide-right and Rubin Palazuelos replaced Ian Black in the middle. The 4-4-1-1 became a more pronounced 4-2-3-1 but this served only to expose the defence even more, the further Hearts’ pushed the more vicious the counter-attacks.
Does Efrain Juarez still feature in Lennon’s plans? The Mexican arrived with great fanfare from the 2010 World Cup and enjoyed some great displays in the pre and early season matches. With Ki Sung-Yeung at the Asian Cup, Juarez was the preferred option coming off the bench to McGinn or Ljungberg (or indeed Crosas who didn’t make the match squad). But 8 minutes at 4-0 is hardly time to make an impression, interestingly used on the right of midfield (Brown tucked into the centre alongside Ledley). It was never clear whether Juarez disliked this wide role where he played in August, but it seems his best chance of finding match time. Complicating matters is the imminent arrival of Kris Commons from Derby County, reported to be on a free. The left-sided attacker may be employed out on the right.
While the midfield heaves with options, the ramshackle defence breezed through this match. Jefferies would’ve intended to test the defensively shakey Mulgrew, but perhaps in some kind of hangover from having big Kevin Kyle in the team, the high passes were dealt with easily by both Rogne and Mulgrew, and any knock-downs were captured easily by a more numerous Celtic defence.
All in all, an enjoyable display in what could’ve been a disastrous encounter against the 3rd best team currently in the SPL. But question marks loom over certain areas of Lennon’s squad, still to be answered . Having had time to alleviate these problems, any slip-up will be damning.