London Hearts Supporters Club

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Csaba Laszlo <-auth None auth-> Charlie Richmond
[S McManus 79]
25 of 032 Andrew Driver 23 L SPL A

Hearts earn a welcome bonus point against below-par Celtic

WHATEVER the SPL title race lacks in quality this season, it may yet compensate for in uncertainty of outcome. Celtic had seemed poised to turn it into a carefree procession when they racked up 12 consecutive victories from the start of September to the end of November, but their quest for a fourth successive championship suddenly looks more like a hazardous obstacle course.
Hearts might easily have been celebrating a sixth successive SPL win on Saturday, had they not suffered a damaging loss of conviction in the second half of a match which saw Celtic as vulnerable and ineffective at home as at any time during Gordon Strachan's managerial tenure.

Six days after his team's 2-0 defeat at Hibs, the Celtic manager was content to salvage a point from a performance which had seen his team jeered from the field by their own supporters at half-time. With a four-point advantage at the top of the table still intact, courtesy of Dundee United's draw with Rangers earlier in the day, there was no question of this being viewed as a potentially fatal blow for Celtic who remain favourites to win the title.

It was the standard of their display, however, which may have disabused the view being expressed by many observers two weeks ago, when they opened up a seven-point lead over their great rivals, that they are nailed-on certainties to retain it.

Remarkably, Celtic did not manage to post an effort on target until the 73rd minute when substitute Lee Naylor's long range shot was comfortably saved by Hearts' under-employed goalkeeper Janos Balogh.

Had they capitalised on seizing the initiative as effectively as they did in an impressive first half display, Hearts would surely have headed back along the M8 with all three points.

Instead, Csaba Laszlo's men needlessly defended deeper after the break, evidently believing the excellent Andrew Driver's 23rd minute goal would be enough to win the game.

While Balogh's goal could not be described as coming under siege, Celtic's territorial supremacy in the final half hour of the match was rewarded with the equaliser from captain Stephen McManus.

"The first half was one of our poorest performances for a long time," admitted Strachan. "Hearts did well, but we were too predictable. The players did well to drag themselves back from such a bad performance."

While there was frustration among the home fans over Celtic's failure to widen the gap at the top of the table, Strachan took a philosophical view.

"You could say it was a lost opportunity, but maybe Rangers will feel the same way today," he added. "That is going to happen until the end of the season, points being dropped by both teams. We must be happy with the point today."

Laszlo shared his counterpart's satisfaction with the final outcome on a day when he had shown a considerable degree of tactical nous. While his disconnected post-match assessments have a hint of madness about them, there is clearly no shortage of effective method in Laszlo's work with his players.

"I cannot be unhappy with a point at Celtic Park," he said. "I'm a little disappointed, because it was a game we could have won, but in the second half we lost our shape a little."

Solid in defence, where Christophe Berra and Marius Zaliukas again showed why they will be attractive transfer targets next month, Hearts were also finely balanced in midfield where the holding play of Christos Karipidis and Ruben Palazuelos provided Driver, Laryea Kingston and Bruno Aguiar with the licence to hit Celtic on the counter attack. With Christian Nade compensating for his lack of mobility with a selfless shift as the lone front man which troubled McManus and Gary Caldwell, Hearts were able to stretch the Celtic defence on several occasions in the first half.

Their greatest source of encouragement came down the left flank where Driver was able to get in behind Andreas Hinkel almost at will.

It was no surprise Hearts' 23rd minute goal came as a result of Hinkel's inability to track his man, Driver coolly beating Artur Boruc from close in after Kingston's driven ball from the right found its way to him.

The young Englishman, whose form is being monitored by his country's under-21 coach Stuart Pearce, almost doubled Hearts' lead nine minutes before half-time when his shot was turned behind for a corner by Boruc. "I should have scored," said Driver. "Boruc is a bit daunting when you are one-on-one with him, but I should have done better with that chance. We came here and created a few chances today and the manager has made us realise how good a team we can be."

Driver says the late payment of wages which have dogged Hearts in recent weeks, with some bonuses still outstanding, have been used as a motivational tool by the players. "It has given us a siege mentality," he said. "It has pulled us together and we have turned it around and made it a positive. We have just had to put our trust in the people at the club. We have been told we will get our bonuses and we trust them."

Celtic ensured Hearts would not be paying a win bonus for this match when McManus headed in his third goal of the season from close range after Georgios Samaras, a first-half substitute for hamstring injury victim Shaun Maloney, nodded Shunsuke Nakamura's cross back into his path. Maloney is expected to be out for a month and will miss the Old Firm clash at Ibrox on 27 December.

Scott McDonald almost snatched a winner for Celtic in the closing stages but Hearts, despite some theatrical time-wasting which might have been punished more severely by referee Charlie Richmond, fully merited a share of the spoils.

Man of the match

Andrew Driver (Hearts)

On the day when Celtic unveiled a magnificent statue of Jimmy Johnstone outside their stadium, it was fitting that a wide player should be the star turn on the pitch. Jinky would have approved of Driver's willingness to take on defenders and ability to run at pace with the ball firmly under his control, not to mention an eye for goal.

Taken from the Scotsman

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