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<-Page <-Team Sat 11 Apr 2009 Hearts 1 Celtic 1 Team-> Page->
<-Srce <-Type Scotsman ------ Report Type-> Srce->
Csaba Laszlo <-auth Stuart Bathgate auth-> Craig Thomson
[J Hesselink 1]
23 of 030 Bruno Aguiar 32 L SPL H

Caldwell says Celtic can prevail

Stuart Bathgate
THE cracks are beginning to show now. The list of crocks is lengthening. As they approach the last rounds of their Premier League title fight, both Celtic and Rangers look more vulnerable than they have done for some time.
That is in part due to their mounting injuries, which are almost inevitable towards the end of a demanding season. But there is also an enhanced magnitude to each match that can hardly fail to induce some tension. In September a couple of dropped points might not be given a second thought: in April there is an awareness that they could have a serious significance.

For Celtic, the two points they conceded on Saturday do not in themselves alter much. They are still just ahead of Rangers, and in control of their own fate: win their six remaining games and they will be champions again.

But before this draw they at least had the luxury of knowing that they could even conceivably lose the post-split Old Firm fixture and yet stay ahead of their rivals on goal difference. Presuming both teams have identical results before that match, Celtic will now go into it with a reduced margin for error.

But little can be presumed about what will happen in the coming weeks, and it certainly cannot be taken for granted that the two Glasgow teams will defeat everyone else. If, for instance, Rangers lose at Tynecastle in a few weeks, this point for Celtic could turn out to be one gained rather than one dropped.

Or, as Gary Caldwell said after the match: "Only time will tell whether that point was a good point or a bad point. In the coming weeks we'll find out.

"There's a long way to go, but we're still ahead and we still believe we're going to win it. We're going to try to win this league, not let Rangers hand it to us."

That last remark was a reference to the run-in last season, when Rangers were ahead on points and odds-on favourites to become champions before a severe fixture backlog began to catch up with them. This season, of course, while Rangers are still in the Scottish Cup, neither side has any European involvement to distract them from the battle for domestic supremacy. Caldwell remains confident Celtic have what it takes to keep their noses in front, and cited the character they showed to stay in this match when for long stretches Hearts were dominant. "We believe we're playing well," he added. "The last two games at home we played really well. Today for spells we were under the cosh and had to dig in, and we did that. It's not an easy place to come to, and Rangers will have to come back here after the split and they will find it's a tough place to come to."

Celtic got off to the best possible start, opening the scoring in the first 30 seconds thanks to a mistake by Janos Balogh. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink got his right shin to a cross from Andreas Hinkel, and although the Hearts goalkeeper appeared to have the effort covered, he allowed the ball to slip through his hands and into the corner of the net.

Conceding that early goal could have been Hearts' undoing, but instead it worked in their favour as it forced them to play more assertively than they might otherwise have done. They had a good chance to equalise quickly when Marius Zaliukas headed a cross from Ruben Palazuelos over the bar, and as the game developed they began to win the physical battle, pinning Celtic back as a result.

Having said that, the best scoring opportunities for as long as Celtic remained a goal to the good went to the man who had scored it. Within a minute or so towards the half-hour mark, Vennegoor of Hesselink first shot wide and then headed off a post, and if either effort had gone in Hearts might have found themselves with too much to do.

Instead, having survived those scrapes, they equalised with a goal of the highest quality from Bruno Aguiar, direct from a free-kick awarded for a trip by Caldwell on Michael Stewart. As the Portuguese midfielder shaped up to strike the ball from more than 30 yards out, everyone in the ground, including Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc, must have had a fair idea of what he was about to attempt. But seeing something coming and being able to stop it are two different things, and Boruc did not even get close to Aguiar's shot, which curled round the right of the defensive wall on its way high into the net.

Gordon Strachan changed his line-up at half-time when it became obvious that Stephen McManus, the Celtic captain, was not fit enough to go on, and indeed should probably not have started. Caldwell, who had been playing in a holding midfield role, dropped into the back four, and Marc Crosas came off the bench. The Spaniard had the odd decent touch, but Hearts remained the stronger side in the middle of the park, a superiority that was further emphasised ten minutes into the second half when Shunsuke Nakamura replaced Willo Flood.

In the final quarter of an hour, Andy Driver shot wide following a Robbie Neilson throw-in, but Celtic then came back off the ropes to finish the contest strongly. A shot by Nakamura which looked like it was on target was deflected for a corner by Zaliukas, and then the visitors' third substitute, Koki Mizuno, shot wide from a good position. Hearts would rightly have felt it an unfair reflection of the game as a whole had they lost it at the death, but it remains to be seen for them too whether this was a point gained or two dropped. In the short term it may look like the latter, as Aberdeen and Dundee United both won later in the day to close the gap between themselves and the third-placed team.

Given that they had to recover from such an early setback, however, Csaba Laszlo's side can be satisfied with their afternoon's work.

Aguiar future uncertain

BRUNO Aguiar again proved his worth to Hearts with his equaliser against Celtic on Saturday, but the Portuguese midfielder could have just a handful of games left before he leaves Tynecastle. With his contract expiring at the end of the season, Aguiar still does not know if he will be able to reach agreement on a new deal.

"I have one month and two weeks yet," he said after the match. "I don't know after that. We have six games and after that we see." Aguiar added that he did not want to discuss the matter further, implying he was happy to wait until the current campaign is out of the way before embarking on serious contract discussions.

Especially if Laryea Kingston leaves, the loss of Aguiar would leave Hearts short of creativity in midfield. Michael Stewart is capable of taking a grip on a game from time to time, and, apart from the goal, he was just as influential as Aguiar against the league champions, but he is not as comfortable playing in as advanced a position as Aguiar does. The other Hearts players who can fill a central midfield berth, such as Ruben Palazuelos and Eggert Jonsson, are more defensive again.

Stewart spoke last week about doing everything possible to narrow the gap between Hearts and second-placed Rangers, and the consensus at Tynecastle appears to be that even if they do not end up that close to the Ibrox club this season, they are well placed to mount a bigger challenge to the Old Firm in 2009-10. "We have a chance to compete with Celtic and Rangers next season," Aguiar said. If they are to do that, however, they will surely have to hold on to key players, and strengthen in two or three positions if possible.

Taken from the Scotsman

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