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<-Page <-Team Sat 13 Dec 2008 Celtic 1 Hearts 1 Team-> Page->
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Csaba Laszlo <-auth Douglas Alexander auth-> Charlie Richmond
[S McManus 79]
16 of 032 Andrew Driver 23 L SPL A

Sluggish Celts slip at home

McManus 79  1 HEARTS Driver 23  1
Douglas Alexander at Celtic Park

THE OLD Infirm. After Rangers’ draw at Tannadice continued their trend of struggling away from Ibrox, this was supposedly a chance for Celtic to move six points clear at the top of the Premier League. Yet it soon transpired that the familiar European exit hangover, which normally hits them in the spring, has perhaps arrived early this season.

It took them 73 minutes to muster a shot on target and that was one flung in more in hope than expectation by Lee Naylor, a substitute at left-back. Nevertheless, Celtic roused themselves somewhat in the second half, gradually building up to an equaliser from Stephen McManus with 11 minutes left, but the momentum of 12 successive wins before last week’s defeat at Hibs was never recovered. “It was a poor start by us, the first time we have been affected by a Champions League game,” conceded Gordon Strachan. “We were too predictable in the first half. We built ourselves up to average in the second half.”

Of course, with the stamina Strachan has instilled in them, Celtic can never be discounted from turning matches around in the closing stages. Yet their attempts to mount the familiar, frenzied siege were seriously hampered by the serial time-wasting tactics of the visitors. Strachan was so incensed by them at one stage that he was halfway down the touchline to retrieve a ball deliberately left lying there before being intercepted and returned to his technical area by Alan Muir, the alarmed fourth official.

It seemed then that Muir was assuring Celtic’s manager that plenty of stoppage-time would be added, yet when the board went up there was only an extra three minutes, something which provoked outrage in the stands and Celtic’s dugout. The home manager was even holding out his watch to time substitutions by the end. Did he expect more? “I think we all did,” responded Strachan, “but we had 90 minutes before that to score a goal.”

He was right and it would be wrong to focus on the more nefarious aspects of Hearts’ defiance when there was also much to admire in their display. While the home side were often slipshod in their passing and lethargic in their pressing, Hearts arrived, and played, with considerable confidence. Csaba Laszlo, their manager, may be prone to incoherent rambling in press conferences, yet his team play with purpose and make their points succinctly. With a January sale of their better players envisaged, perhaps they are sensibly squirreling away as many as they can for the second half of the season.

Blackburn are the latest club to eye Christophe Berra, who again enhanced his growing reputation here, although any bid in January may depend on Paul Ince remaining in charge after yesterday’s hefty defeat at Wigan. Bolton are also watching the centre-back, although their scout here would also have noted the excellent performance of Andrew Driver, who scored Hearts’ goal and generally terrorised Andreas Hinkel with his pace.

After John Rankin’s “squiggler” last week, which has already spawned a T-shirt, the goal here was not down to Artur Boruc’s incompetence yet still had a bizarre quality to it. Laryea Kingston’s miscued shot picked Celtic’s offside trap as a skeleton key would a lock and Driver sprang onto it. Boruc loomed before him but the winger was not fazed, staying calm and picking his spot after what seemed a surreal stand-off. “I thought I was offside, so that kind of calmed me down,” he explained afterwards. “I think the keeper slipped, too, which helped.” Driver might have had a second when Gary Caldwell and Hinkel collided pursuing the same high ball on the halfway line but this time Boruc came off best, pulling off a fine left-handed save from the shot the English winger tried to place across him, left to right, into the far corner.

Celtic, meanwhile, were creating next to nothing. Robbie Neilson had been booked after just 53 seconds for catching Mark Wilson late but the home side became too obsessed with pressing at this perceived weak point, particularly with Neilson playing with such calm assurance despite his precarious situation. It did not help that they lost Shaun Maloney to a hamstring injury on the half hour. Scans will reveal the full extent of the injury, but Maloney could miss as much as two months and is surely out of the Old Firm game at Ibrox in a fortnight’s time.

Georgios Samaras replaced him, yet offered little extra impetus until Celtic started to dominate in the second half. He caught a diagonal pass from Caldwell on his chest and was set to finish until Neilson slid in to deny him. Yet the Greek would eventually be integral to Celtic’s breakthrough moment, nodding Shunsu-ke Nakamura’s cross from the right down accurately for McManus to turn it in.

Samaras might even have won it in the final seconds when Nakamura found him in Hearts’ box but, after switching his feet quickly, he swiped his shot high and wide. Despite the time-wasting which finally brought a booking for Janos Balogh, their goalkeeper, it would have been an injustice if Hearts had not emerged with something tangible for their efforts.

CELTIC: Boruc 7, Hinkel 5, Caldwell 7, McManus 6, Wilson 6 (Naylor 65min), Nakamura 6, Brown 6, Hartley 6, McGeady 6, McDonald 5, Maloney 5 (Samaras 30min, 6)

HEARTS: Balogh 6, Neilson 7, Zaliukas 7, Berra 7, Jonsson 7, Kingston 7 (Obua 60min, 6), Palazuelos 6, Karapidis 6, Driver 8, Aguiar 7 (Cesnauskis 64min), Nade 6 (Mole 90min) 26

Taken from

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