Larsson breaks Hearts

Celtic 2 Heart of Midlothian 0
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The Independent Football

Henrik Larsson kept his nerve as Celtic were taken to the brink by Hearts, who finally succumbed to two goals in the final 10 minutes from Europe's top marksman at Parkhead last night.

Celtic hit a maroon brick wall until Larsson belatedly headed them in front. He then embellished that with an audacious 86th-minute hitch-kick from Lubo Moravcik's cross to maintain a 13-point lead in the Scottish Premier League.

The rain which soaked Parkhead was as unrelenting as the pressure which Celtic inflicted upon Hearts in a torrid first half. Time and again, Antti Niemi denied the champions with his hands and feet in the manner that defied Germany and aided England's passage to the World Cup finals.

The Finland goalkeeper produced a superb save after just eight minutes when Alan Thompson read Steven Pressley's slack pass and burst through a gap before seeing his right-foot shot turned wide by Niemi's outstretched hand.

Hearts, however, did summon up an impressive chance of their own after 21 minutes when Ricardo Fuller left Joos Valgaeren for dead and cut the ball across the face of goal, where Gary Wales waited to stab it in. However, Johan Mjallby somehow diverted the ball over the bar before Wales could strike.

Five minutes later Niemi denied Henrik Larsson, who had brought down Jackie McNamara's cross and drilled in a shot, before the Swede then headed another McNamara cross inches over the bar.

The dam looked to have burst in the 33rd minute when Larsson met McNamara's corner but the vigilant Steve Fulton produced a vital goal-line clearance from the striker's header. Overworked Hearts were glad of their half-time break.

It was almost before the hour mark before Niemi was next threatened. Pressley slipped and appeared to handle the ball on the edge of the box, Larsson pounced and lobbed Niemi but the ball bounced inches wide.

Thompson's cavalier spirit picked out Larsson a few minutes later with an angled cross, but again the ball slipped wide of the target. Thompson then delivered another fine ball for McNamara at the back post but his diving header was touched wide for a corner.

Celtic, though, were finding it increasingly more difficult to open Hearts up. That was the signal for Lubo Moravcik to enter the fray. The little Slovakian teased Hearts with his darting runs, but it was Thompson who finally unlocked the door with 10 minutes left. His run down the left stretched Hearts and an expert cross was glanced beyond Niemi by the head of Larsson.

Celtic (3-5-2): Douglas; Mjallby, Balde, Valgaeren; McNamara, Lambert, Lennon, Thompson, Petta (Moravcik, 66); Larsson, Hartson. Substitutes not used: Gould (gk), Boyd, Maloney, Smith.

Heart of Midlothian (3-5-2): Niemi; Severin, Pressley, Webster; Flogel, Simmons, Gronlund (Kirk, 83), Fulton (Boyack, 83), Mahe; Fuller, Wales (Adam, 78). Substitutes not used: McKenzie (gk), McCann.

Referee: R Orr.