Gordon Strachan is reluctant to cite any single match as pivotal in Celtic's quest to retain their Scottish Premier League title but this, surely, was that match. If Hearts had won they would have closed the gap on the leaders to seven points, and highlighted vulnerability in the champions. The Edinburgh side came close to such a victory but snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The chasm yawns to 13 points. Unlucky.
Some bookmakers have already paid out on Celtic winning the league. Barring an improbable renaissance by Rangers, the title "race" is done.
Luck was not the story on Saturday. The tinkering of Hearts' interim coach, Eduard Malofeev, was part of the tale. With 10 minutes remaining and his side leading 1-0 through lone striker Andrius Velicka, Malofeev replaced one of his midfield hustlers, Bruno Aguiar, with a defender, Takis Fyssas, upsetting the balance of his side. He admitted afterwards that it was a mistake. Bizarrely, he also kept a hobbling Marius Zaliukas (the key holding midfielder) on the pitch in the second half instead of fielding Julien Brellier. "A real man has to forget the pain," was his explanation.
Celtic's unwillingness to cede any points was admirable. Given thelack of skill in their 90-minute performance, they had no right to win. Their passing was poor and their midfielders were all off-key. But they kept slogging away, waiting for a break, which came through a corner that led to Jiri Jarosik's headed equaliser.
What seemed an inevitable draw became a win when Craig Gordon fluffed Stephen McManus's shot in the fourth minute of added time. Gordon, one of the best young goalkeepers in Britain, is usually immune to such errors, but then it was that sort of day.
"Technically we were not great," said Strachan. "We weren't as sharp as we needed to be but we did something about it [with second-half substitutes, including Jarosik]."
He added that his side played the better football for perhaps only the last 20 minutes, and then, tellingly, said: "Maybe we need only 20 minutes of technical superiority [to win]." There was not a trace of arrogance in this, and indeed he praised Hearts to the hilt.
Malofeev, who will stay in charge while Valdas Ivanauskas is out with stress, insisted the title is not lost. "We will run to catch up," he laughed. Hilarious.
Goals: Velicka (72) 0-1; Jarosik (86) 1-1; Gordon, og (94) 2-1.
Celtic (4-4-2): Boruc; Telfer, Caldwell, McManus, Naylor; Nakamura, Lennon, Sno (Jarosik, 74), McGeady (Maloney, 78); Miller, Zurawski (Vennegoor of Hesselink, 70). Substitutes not used: Marshall (gk), Pearson, Baldé, O'Dea.
Heart of Midlothian (4-1-4-1): Gordon;
Neilson, Tall, Berra, Goncalves; Zaliukas;
Cesnauskis, (Barasa, h-t), Hartley, Aguiar (Fyssas, 80), Mikoliunas; Velicka. Substitutes not used: Banks (gk), Jankauskas, Wallace, Brellier, Mole.
Referee: C Thomson (Scotland).
Booked: Celtic Lennon; Hearts Tall, Neilson.
Man of the match: Hartley.
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