Cool Thompson edges nervy Celtic in front

Celtic 1 Heart of Midlothian 0
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The Independent Online

Alan Thompson gave Celtic a title lifeline a fortnight ago when he assumed the penalty-taking duties from Henrik Larsson in the Old Firm derby, but yesterday he put daylight between the champions and Rangers for the first time all season.

Alan Thompson gave Celtic a title lifeline a fortnight ago when he assumed the penalty-taking duties from Henrik Larsson in the Old Firm derby, but yesterday he put daylight between the champions and Rangers for the first time all season.

The midfielder struck from the spot for the third time in four games to put Celtic three points clear with two games left in the duel for the Scottish Premier League and while their rivals can wipe that margin out today when Kilmarnock visit Ibrox, this taut encounter was evidence of the suffocating pressure both will face in the run-in.

Glasgow has been rippling since last Wednesday as a result of Celtic's 4-0 win at Motherwell, a result that had repercussions on and off the pitch. The most obvious was that victory had hoisted Martin O'Neill's team above their rivals on goal difference. However, the one which gained more publicity was the attack on Neil Lennon by Rangers fans just hours later as he sat in his car at traffic lights, underlining that the Old Firm's antipathy never sleeps.

Lennon has given up playing for Northern Ireland because of death threats from Loyalist terrorists, but insists that he will not walk away from Celtic. The tiny midfielder received rapturous acclaim from every corner of this vast ground.

Hearts, however, were in no mood to assist Celtic's title aspirations. Not only did they require points to secure their place in the Uefa Cup, but they had a victory over the champions at Tynecastle just three weeks ago to buoy their confidence.

That was evident with a fine move after just 11 minutes when Robbie Neilson's cross picked out Kevin McKenna, whose deft control allowed him to elude Paul Lambert only for the goalkeeper Javier Broto to save Celtic by beating the ball away.

Celtic accepted the warning and stepped up the tempo and a long ball from Bobo Balde in the 21st minute pierced the Hearts defence, dropping into the path of Larsson whose effort needed a deflection from Neilson to prevent a goal.

Just a couple of minutes later, Stilian Petrov hooked a vicious shot into the turf that spun up for Larsson, whose angled half-volley seemed poised to beat Tepi Moilanen until the goalkeeper got down to claw it away.

Celtic had built up a head of steam and the string of fouls conceded by Hearts proved costly in the 28th minute. Thompson's free-kick, after Larsson had drawn a foul from Scott Severin, was cleared but the midfielder whipped the ball back into the box and Steven Pressley barged into the back of Chris Sutton, allowing Thompson to drill in his third penalty in four games.

Moilanen denied another Thompson effort, leaping to touch the midfielder's shot wide just before the interval, and the Celtic support would have to live off that moment for a long while through a tense second half where Hearts soaked up the pressure and remained a threat.

Jamie Smith eventually replaced Thompson, who had succumbed to a hamstring injury, and the youngster's deep pass released Larsson with just 11 minutes left. The striker's run was halted abruptly by Severin, who, remarkably escaped punishment.

Celtic's craving for another goal was tempered by the knowledge that Hearts had not been killed off. Didier Agathe ought to have scored when Larsson set him up but the winger thrashed the ball on to the underside of the bar and it bounced out, leaving Celtic to negotiate six long minutes of anxiety as Hearts pursued an equaliser.

Celtic 1 Heart of Midlothian 0
Thompson pen 29

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 58,175

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