Celtic 3-0 Hearts (League Cup Semifinal)
Sunday, 28 October
Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh
Celtic overcame a determined Hearts side in the second half, and are on their way to their fifth consecutive domestic cup final.
A stuffy, cagey first half which saw each team lose a man to injury led to a more expansive second half, which opened up further after Celtic got the first goal on 51 minutes through a Scott Sinclair penalty. Ryan Christie would a second fifteen minutes later. And five minutes after, Christie netted his second, Celtic’s third, with a cultured finish. That was all Celtic would need to secure their place in the final at Hampden, but it easily could have been five or six.
Hearts were able to frustrate Celtic in the first half by narrowing the pitch as they had in their victory at Tynecastle, staying compact and forcing the Hoops into long balls and lazy square passes. Both sides had few chances in the first 45, where the story was the early loss of Jambo striker and all-round prick Steven Naismith to a mystery knee injury. Naismith was a massive loss for Hearts the rest of the way, as the Edinburgh side lacked any real fire in attack without him. Kouassi Eboue was also lost to a knee injury after attempting a clearance that was more kung-fu than futbol, and landing awkwardly.
Hearts’ replacement was like-for-like, but Danny Amankwaa is utterly untalented and posed zero threat to Celtic’s back line from that point on. Brendan Rodgers, meanwhile, was able to call on Scott Sinclair to replace Kouassi, moving Callum McGregor into a deeper role.
Sinclair was miles better than he has been recently, scoring Celtic’s opener from the spot and repeatedly stretching Hearts’ back line. It was the beautiful, magical Sinclair who showed up today. He was instrumental in an excellent bounce-back performance from Celtic in the second half, where Hearts were exposed time and again, a massive warning for them as they hope to hold on to the top spot in the league.
The other super-duper-sub on this day was Ryan Christie, so anonymous Thursday night in Leipzig but with his best game wearing the Hoops today. He won the penalty that Sinclair scored. His shot on goal on 66 minutes was botched horribly by Hearts keeper Zdenek Zlamal, spinning off his gloves and bouncing just over the line, and in the 71st minute he placed a lovely ball into the left top corner that Zlamal could only brush with his fingertips. His performance personified a resilient second-half Celtic team who showed a lot of class and fight in adverse circumstances.
The 90MC match preview got the Hearts lineup just exactly perfect. The speedy winger Callum Morrison was left out for a more compact, defensive side meant to contain Celtic, which it did for 45 minutes. Unfortunately, you need to play 90. Steven Naismith was incapable of playing even ten, and that was it for Hearts up front. As predicted, Steven MacLean was awful, and the only mark he left was on Kouassi’s meat-and-two-veg. For those scoring at home, that’s two attacks by Hearts forwards on Celtic baws in two games, both unpenalized …
Arnaud Djoum was as usual industrious for the Jambos in midfield, and paired with better players might have been a real asset to his team today. His midfield partners Bozanic, Lee, and Haring, though, offered very little on either end and when the chips were down they were found wanting. Michael Smith is interesting as a long throw-in specialist but little else, and pacy Demitri Mitchell was not able to exploit space on the other wing.
At halftime, Levein might have thought he was ontosomething with his second-choice centre-back partnership of Dikamona and Dunne. Dikamona had Edouard, the larger man, in his pocket in the first half, and Dunne was probably the only Hearts player who you could say had a good performance over the 90. However, Hearts were gotten at time and again in the second, and it was Zlamal’s clanger, the worst defensive error of all, which undid them completely.
I was not at all upset when the Celtic lineup came out and it was considerably different from mine. The Hoops finally got a bit of luck with injuries, and Tom Rogic and Kristoffer Ajer were both fit for the starting eleven. Rogic, although double-teamed and hacked at in the first half, was key to Celtic’s attack in the second, and looked no worse for his being left in Glasgow as the squad travelled to Leipzig. Scott Bain was a surprise inclusion between the sticks; Rodgers has apparently told him the League Cup will be his campaign to own. He had one or two shaky moments early on that could easily be chalked up to rust, and was mainly untroubled the rest of the way.
In front of Bain, Ajer and Benkovic made a formidable and intelligent centre-half pairing. Benkovic seems to improve with each match and we will see him back down the road to Leicester with heavy hearts. Ajer, returning after five weeks on the shelf with an injured hamstring, also put in a strong, quality shift. It was a good match for him to re-introduce himself; Hearts were only able to muster six shots (three on target) and three corners to defend.
Further forward, Ntcham and Kouassi mixed things up with the Hearts midfield well before injuries forced their exits. The halftime substitution of the former forced Celtic to push forward, but a bit of risk paid off. Rodgers was forced to make a tactical change in favor of attack, putting on Christie, and the rest is history. Rogic and James Forrest were stymied by tight Hearts marking in the first, but as space opened up later on they terrorized their opponents. Kieran Tierney and Mikael Lustig were essential to getting Celtic upfield, although Tierney’s final crosses were below his capability. Odsonne Edouard’s contribution was ultimately forgettable but it needs to be said that he has yet to turn 21, and the skills are there.
Celtic, already dealing with injury crisis, lost Ntcham and Kouassi, but will be encouraged by the return of both Ajer and Benkovic to the back line. It’s not out of the question Ajer might be pushed up to defensive midfield in the near future, should any of the Ntcham/Kouassi Eboue/Mulumbu trio be slow to return to the lineup. Hopefully no one, including Scott Brown, is rushed back, as Celtic have proven themselves capable with McGregor playing a deeper role.
Brendan Rodgers was correct in his postmatch press conference in Germany, where he noted that Celtic often bounce back after European defeat. Their emphatic second-half performance will resound not only with their opponents in the League Cup final, but around the Scottish Premiership. League leaders Hearts had no answer for Celtic in the second half, and after losing Naismith, the question might not be if they fall from the top, but when, and how far.
MAN OF THE MATCH: RYAN CHRISTIE
Next up for the Hoops is a Halloween night away at woeful Dundee, who currently prop up the table, with 9 losses from ten, scoring half a goal a game while allowing nearly 2.5! All the tarot cards point to a real blood-curdling time for the Dark Blues.