Bruno bites back as Hearts earn deserved draw
Hearts maintained their increasingly insistent push for European qualification next season, with a deserved point from a pulsating match against league leaders Celtic at Tynecastle this afternoon.
Caught cold when Jan Venegoor of Hesselink turned the ball home inside a minute, Csaba Lazslo's men fought back hard to equalise through Bruno Aguiar's 31st-minute free-kick. Thereafter, the game ebbed and flowed, with each team team enjoying periods of ascendancy and each scorning numerous chances before referee Mr Thomson brought this enthralling encounter to an end some two hours later.
Unsurprisingly Hearts remained unchanged from the team that had recovered from a goal down to comprehensively beat Kilmarnock seven days previously. Meanwhile, the continued absence of Paul Hartley saw Gary Caldwell deployed as a holding midfielder, with Glenn Loovens chosen to partner Stephen McManus in defence. That apart, the visitors looked very along familiarly dangerous lines.
Celtic were the last team to defeat Hearts in a league match at Tynecastle, in a November encounter that was over as a contest inside the first 20 minutes. Our pre-match hopes that Hearts would be more watchful in the early stages this time were quickly dashed, though, as the visitors raced into a first-minute lead.
Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink was the man who supplied it, as the Hearts defence made heavy work of clearing the ball from their own box. Driver's mishit clearance was fired back into the area by Andreas Hinkel and the Dutchman sclaffed a 16-yard effort gently towards the bottom left-hand corner. It did not look as if it had the power to beat Janos Balogh and cross the line. Somehow, though, it did.
Hearts responded sharply, and might have had a penalty kick almost immediately when Lee Naylor's slack control saw the ball spin up and strike him on the arm before he cleared. Mr Thomson though was unimpressed by the home side's claims.
He did take action when Stephen McManus cynically fouled the gambolling Aguiar midway inside the Celtic half, and the visitors' skipper became the first name in the book for the afternoon.
The home side continued to press. David Obua, Andrew Driver, and Lee Wallace providing good support from the wide areas, and Calum Elliot, understandably quieter than last week, still working tirelessly to give the Celtic central defenders n peace at all.
That said, the greatest reward we got was a succession of corners, which were dealt with more or less comfortably by Artur Boruc and co, although Marius Zaliukas should have troubled them more when presented with a free header from just five yards.
Celtic threatened only sporadically during this period, but they did come close to extending their lead just before the half-hour when McGeady's corner was forced goalward by an unidentified head and brushed the post on its way behind for a by-kick.
Hearts continued to be easy on the eye and enjoy the vast majority of possession, but Celtic defended stoutly to keep the home side at bay. There was nothing they could on 31 minutes though when Bruno Aguiar brilliantly bent in the equaliser from a free-kick won 25 yards from goal by Michael Stewart's willing run. Celtic appeared to have all the angles covered, but the Portuguese made his right-foot conversion look absurdly easy.
Now we saw confidence flood through the Hearts forward players, Obua, Driver and Elliot all prominent as the home side pinned the champions back inside their own 18-yard box for the remainder of the half. That they did not trouble Boruc's goal during this period was down to more watchful defending and some good handling from the big Pole in the visitors' goal.
Having seen his team outplayed in the last fifteen of the first half, Gordon Strachan responded at the interval by introducing Marc Crosas for Stephen McManus, presumably hoping to add more craft to a midfield that had been largely bypassed in the first period.
But it was the home side who continued to look the stronger, and had they shown slightly more composure in front of goal they might have scored three times more in the first ten minutes.
First Zaliukas intercepted beautifully inside the centre circle and slalomed his way to the edge of the box before seeing his low shot deflected narrowly wide. Then Elliot beat the offside trap on the left but could not guide his cutback beyond the keeper. Finally, Aguiar waited an age for the ball to drop to him inside the area before booting it over the bar.
Celtic introduced Shunsuke Nakamura, and his first act in the game was to try his luck from a 22-yard free-kick which was easily blocked by the defensive wall. That heralded a period of Celtic pressure, with McGeady and Nakamura stretching the Hearts back-line across the 18-yard box, leaving acres of space for Vennegoor of Hesselink and McDonald to exploit in the middle.
The home side held firm, though, and still found some time to attack themselves, even if their efforts were becoming more and more seldom as the half progressed. Driver was the main player, especially when he found himself wide on the right, with one sumptuous pass from Stewart in particular deserving of a finish better than the charge he suffered from the shoulder of Lee Naylor.
With Elliot appearing to tire in the heat, Csaba Laszlo made his first change with fifteen minutes remaining when he brought on Christian Nade to bolster the attack. He wasn't involved, but he did arrive in time to see what was to be the home side's final effort on goal, a hooked volley wide from Andrew Driver after Loovens failed to deal with Neilson's long throw.
Most of the excitement was at the other end by this stage though. Nakamura cut in from the right and shot low, only for Balogh to hold well. The Japanese international then saw a close range effort deflected wide by Zaliukas, before Koki Mizuno, recently introduced for McGeady, fired the final chance well wide after a corner dropped nicely for him in the box.
A winner for either side at that stage would have been harsh on the other though, with neither team deserving to lose what had been a cracking encounter.
Hearts: Balogh; Neilson, Karipidis, Zaliukas, Wallace; Obua, Stewart, Palazuelos, Driver; Aguiar (Tullberg 85); Elliot (Nade 75). Subs not used: MacDonald, Mrowiec, Cesnauskis, Jonsson, Templeton.
Celtic: Boruc; Hinkel, Loovens, McManus (Crosas 46), Naylor; Flood (Nakamura 55), Brown, Caldwell, McGeady (Mizuno 80); Vennegoor of Hesselink; MacDonald. Booked: McManus. Subs not used: Brown, Ferry, Misun, Maloney.
Referee: Craig Thomson
Top man: Lee Wallace, colossal in defence and attack.
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