Hearts struck lucky after being dominated for the majority of the Scottish FA Cup semi-final against Celtic. In a brief attacking spell, Rudi Skacel took the lead for Hearts. Celtic rallied to equalise, but Euan Norris handed Hearts victory, making a horrendous mistake in awarding a penalty.
As per the tictactic match preview, Neil Lennon decided to (largely) keep the same team-sheet as last week’s 6-0 win over Kilmarnock. Where he diverged from the preview, is that the 4-3-3 / 4-1-2-1-2 formation was retained – a bold move when faced against an expected 5 man midfield.
Also as expected, Mikael Lustig was the only change, coming in for the ill Adam Matthews.
Sergio had two changes to make following his sides victory over Dunfermline. Andy Webster came in for the injured Jamie Hamill. As a result, Darren Barr moved into the midfield with Webster partnering Marius Zaliukas at the back.
The other change was at the top, with Stephen Elliott preferred to Gary Glen, with Craig Beattie meanwhile only fit for the bench.
But the shape was subtly different from the expected 4-2-3-1, and really not by much. In fact there’s little distinction between the “trendy” 4-2-3-1 and the old-fashioned 4-4-1-1. Hearts were very clearly defined with and without the ball, or respectively 4-4-1-1 and 4-1-4-1, dependent on the fluid movement of Barr and Skacel.
In what has been a recurring theme this season, the very early period of the match was interrupted by moment(s) of madness from the Celtic defence, with Kelvin Wilson and then Charlie Mulgrew guilty of lazy, dangerous play at the back.
The team did, however, makes strides after that point. With the Jambos sitting so deep, Celtic’s back four (and sitting midfielder Brown) had a leisurely time passing the ball around, and getting forward.
Such was the freedom that even Glen Loovens was able to make dashes forward. This isn’t as silly a tactic as one might think – as opposed to a full-back for example who has a strict, defined man-marker, Loovens (or whatever spare centre-back) has no man-marker, and therefore can make “surprise” forays forward. The fatal flaw being, that Loovens is woeful with the ball at his feet.
The dilemma for Hearts was in providing support for Elliott, the attacker would be leaving a man free. So for example, Andy Driver coming off Lustig makes for an easy Celtic counter down the right. Hearts therefore were too cautious to cause meaningful attacks, preferring defensive sturdiness. As outlined in the preview, Hearts only real threats going forward were from set-pieces – with a quick fire 2 corners to each side in just the opening 10 minutes.
With 1st half possession favouring Celtic to the tune of 70%, Hearts strategy became clear (also touched upon in the preview). Like Kilmarnock, Hearts needed to shut Celtic out for as long as possible, and depend on getting fairly fortunate with respect to a number of variables – taking one of the few opportunities that should arise, letting Celtic self-destruct (as has so often been the case this season), or rather hopefully, hope for a bit of good-luck when it comes to refereeing (again, as has so often been the case).
By half-time, Hearts were outrageously under the kosh, barely getting out of their own half; never mind mounting an effort on goal. Celtic weren’t making enough of their possession, but still had some good chances. Hooper should’ve done better with a glancing header (after Mulgrew was allowed to make his way up the park), and Commons also could’ve done more picking up on a slack pass. Biggest chance of all fell to Ki, who unmarked at the back post fired a close range header against the post.
Sergio had to make a change or wait for Celtic to find the breakthrough….
Second half – Second striker
Perhaps in a good example of “power play” in football, Sergio made a change that devastated the by now fairly complacent and comfortable Celtic defence. A switch to two strikers – and the inform Craig Beattie no less.
The obvious question is – with a 5 man midfield already struggling defensively, how can introducing another striker possibly help? Two things: the first, by mimicking Celtic’s 4-1-2-1-2 (4-4-2 diamond), it was a simple case of “everybody has a man”, with no “spare” Celtic players. The second, is part of the “power-play” idea, and Sergio has to be given credit in this regard. His players were fired up after the interval, and put in the best, most dangerous 10 minutes from either side. Quite simply – attack is the best form of defence.
The change took Celtic by surprise, with Hearts overloading in attack. With the defence unsure as to who to pick up, Beattie made the difference (albeit with a rather fortunate deflection) with Skacel picking up the loose ball to score. A good Hearts attack but pretty slack defending at any stage of a competition.
Hearts capitalised on the momentum, Skacel coming close again with a superb ranged drive, and Celtic for a moment looked close to conceding again but the “power-play” would end. Hearts grabbed their big chance, so it (initially) looked like a case of battening down the hatches.
Reverting to type
The onus was returned to Celtic to step up and create. Ki was having a decent game out of position(ish) on the right of the diamond, and was surprisingly wide for much of the match (given that technically, he had to cover Danny Grainger’s forward movement). But Celtic were decent going through that side, Ki linking up well with Lustig, and to a lesser extent Commons and Hooper.
Brown, Ledley and Samaras were quieter, with the latter removed for Anthony Stokes on the hour. The worrying consequence at this stage, was with no “spare” players at the back, Celtic were too often resorting to long, hopeful passes. And with no target to aim for, this initially proved to be a waste.
Where Hearts were most successful, and this applies to the whole match, was in quieting Celtic’s front 3 (plus Ledley). Commons was essentially marked out the game by Barr, and generally when the opposition play so deep, Samaras is a great option in the air. But he was comprehensively kept quiet, and didn’t even have the room to use his dribbling pace.
But with Hearts tiring, Celtic ramped up the pressure with Stokes looking dangerous through the inside-left channel. In a carbon copy of his earlier miss, Ki drove a free header against the back post – two glaring misses from arguably Celtic’s most productive midfielder.
There was a notable propensity among the Celtic team to get crosses in early – besides it’s easier for the likes of Stokes and Hooper to dart in behind defenders, than to win aerial duels – and it took one such delivery from Charlie Mulgrew to carve out the equaliser.
His stunning, crisp, curler from wide on the left was met by Hooper, who this time made no mistake from close range. The striker was verging on offside, but was given the benefit of the doubt by Euan Norris.
There only looked like there could be one winner from that point given the run of play over the majority of the 90 minutes, but Norris had time to make an extraordinary blunder. After a corner was cleared, Zaliukas’ shot was blocked from point-blank by the elbow of Joe Ledley.
Ledley had no chance to get his arm out of the way, and it was even tucked in to a suitable extent. It’s hard to imagine that the referee could consider it intentional. Complicating matters further, is Ledley’s claim that Norris told the Celtic players at the time, that the shot had hit Wanyama’s arm. This doesn’t alter the fact that the penalty should not have been given, but only serves to emphasise the magnitude of the referee’s blunder.
Beattie, who inspired Hearts’ brief period of dominance just after the interval, fired in the penalty. And just to makes things even more uncomfortable for Norris, Andy Webster survived a very similar hand-ball claim in the Hearts box. It, of course, was never a penalty, but the lack of consistency riled the nearby Celtic support – and Neil Lennon.
It was too late then for Celtic to pull-back another, and Hearts now progress to the final against Hibernian.
Most are content that poor refereeing decisions “even out” over the course of a season. This does require a fantastical faith that there is a footballing God out there divinely evening out competition-changing decisions over as little as 50 matches in a season.
In all 4 competitions this season, Celtic have compelling cases against referees, and while the idea of a conspiracy takes a particular stretch of the imagination (Lennon stated on twitter that he believes the matter is “personal”), there is no doubt that Celtic have been bitterly unlucky.
The trouble, is that for every poor refereeing decision, there’s an equal amount of self-destruction. Gary Hooper shouldn’t have made that challenge against Udinese’s midfielder Isla, albeit, it wasn’t a penalty. What excuse for Cha Du Ri’s moment of madness against Stade Rennais?
In the Communities Cup, specifically against Kilmarnock in the final, Anthony Stokes’ desperate yet convincing appeal for a penalty was quickly denied. But remember the wastefulness – with Hooper’s early miss preceding 85 minutes or so of stodgy lack of ideas.
While the SPL has long been decided, in the biggest matches – the Glasgow Derbies – Celtic have been just as unlucky as guilty of poor performance. Back in September the defence couldn’t cope with Rangers’ route one use of Nikica Jelavic and Kyle Lafferty, and Charlie Mulgrew was rightly sent-off that game. The most recent derby was a different story – with Cha Du Ri’s early dismissal a very harsh decision by the referee. But still no excuse for Sone Aluko’s cheery jaunt through Celtic’s defence or Victor Wanyama’s silly two-footed lunge, and red.
Finally to today’s Scottish FA Cup, where the referee was again central to Celtic’s frustration. Hearts were essentially outplayed for 70 or 80 of the 90 minutes, and with them on the ropes, the referee made his fatal misjudgement.
It is too easy to focus on the referee, like Ledley and Lennon have. It’s particularly ignoring of how effectively Sergio’s plan was implemented. His side were aggressive and defended stoutly. But it’s also ignoring Celtic’s own failings. The inability to capitalise on the overwhelming possession and control of the pitch. Celtic were allowed the ball and asked to do their best – and here, the lone goal wasn’t good enough. A better side would relish the opportunity.