Hearts produced a tactical tale of two halves as Celtic rued profligacy rather than poor planning at Hampden.
Paulo Sergio, the Tynecastle manager with experience of big cup occasions in his native Portugal as a player and manager, gambled on a ploy to frustrate Celtic then unleash his star striker for a second half assault.
In the opposite dugout, Neil Lennon, who masterminded a Scottish Cup victory for the Hoops a year ago and is decorated with seven winner’s medals from his time playing for Celtic and Leicester City in the English leagues, chose width to get behind the Hearts defence and pick out the towering Georgios Samaras and penalty box predator Gary Hooper.
In the early stages Hearts pushed high to disrupt Celtic’s ball retention. Stephen Elliott, the lone striker, worked hard to erode the composure of defenders Kelvin Wilson, Glenn Loovens, Mikael Lustig and Charlie Mulgrew. He was aided by Scott Robinson, playing wide right, and Andrew Driver who took up his familiar left wing role.
It was a high intensity approach which could not be sustained, but it left a mark on the backline of Celtic who looked ill-at-ease throughout the 90 minutes.
The Parkhead men soon found a release valve for the pressure on their defenders, with a chasm of space found behind Driver and in front of Hearts left back Danny Grainger. Lustig found himself with space and time on a dozen occasions and was aided by a channel-running Samaras, the wandering Kris Commons, and supporting midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng.
Hearts became content to soak up the pressure, with Elliott and the supporting Skacel rarely now chasing the ball in the opposition half. Driver dropped to a deep wing-back role and Grainger tucked in to create a barrier of three central defenders to cover the roaming threat of Ki, Commons and Scott Brown.
A snap Commons effort from 25 yards was all that had troubled Jamie Macdonald in the Hearts goal but as Celtic realised the plan to frustrate them they sent reinforcements to the front. Marius Zaliukas and Andy Webster were pushed further back then they had planned and with three minutes until the half time whistle Celtic’s superiority threatened an impending goal.
It should have arrived moments before the break. Another shell into the Hearts penalty area found the defensive line retreated to behind the penalty spot. The clearing header could only break to Lustig on the corner of the penalty box and his floated cross found Ki free at the back post. Rather than plant his feet and power the header, the South Korean was airborne in an attempt to find the gap at the near post, but only succeeded in striking the woodwork.
Celtic’s first half superiority had counted for nothing in terms of goals and Hearts seized the opportunity by introducing Craig Beattie at half time. Scott Robinson was sacrificed, with Skacel charged with ensuring a presence in the wide right area.
The change to 4-4-2 by Hearts brought immediate gains before Celtic could settle into their patient pattern of passing. Black strode into the right channel and switched the play to the central Beattie who turned the direction of the ball between the split Celtic centre halves. Skacel, taking a dangerous position under his roaming brief, raced on to score.
The goal came in the 47th minute and the game plan had to change for both sides. Celtic turned more direct and held their midfield much higher up the pitch. Charlie Mulgrew’s task of providing deliveries from the left became a full-time preoccupation and Lennon withdrew the ineffective Samaras for Anthony Stokes.
Hearts held a strong defensive arc around their goal with packs closing down attacks that came within 30 yards of goal. Commons and then Brown were dispossessed and the Edinburgh side found joy on the counter-attack, with Skacel and Beattie both going close.
Celtic had now switched the focus of their attention to the void where Scott Robinson had been, and Sergio substituted Black, who was on a yellow card, with right winger Suso Santana to plug the gap. Now Hearts’ weakness was shifted to the centre of midfield as Skacel joined deep man Darren Barr. Lennon moved by replacing Brown with the pace and trickery of Dylan McGeouch and the 19-year-old exploited room left by the naturally attacking instincts of Skacel.
The final trade-off of substitutions saw Victor Wanyama introduced at right back for Lustig to provide pace and guard against the breaks from Hearts. In the maroon corner, Stephen Elliott came off for young German-Ukranian midfielder Denis Prychynenko, a naturally defence-minded ball player who sat in next to Barr.
Celtic served notice of their intention to out-muscle Webster and Zaliukas from cross balls with Ki missed a virtually identical header to his first half one. With just nine minutes left on the clock, the midfielder would again have been better advised to plant his feet and use the leverage to produce greater power and precision.
Moments later a Commons free-kick was clawed away from under the crossbar by Macdonald, and then a Mulgrew header had to be palmed away by the former Queen of the South loanee. The rebound struck Stokes’ thigh and ricocheted across goal and to a grateful Hearts player.
Cat and mouse
The Gorgie side was again being pushed back by Celtic and on 86 minutes the pressure counted. Mulgrew, again given time and space on the left as Hearts narrowed to curb the Stokes-Hooper combination, found the latter of the partnership who headed into the net from inside the six yard box.
In an engrossing second period of cat and mouse, it seemed only fitting that Hearts would not settle for extra time. Sergio’s men again opened up in attack and a deft exchange between Beattie and Grainger sent the full back racing to the byline to win a corner. His deep delivery broke to Zaliukas, whose lashed effort struck the elbow of Ledley, then the hand of an unwitting Wanyama. Euan Norris pointed to the spot and Beattie converted in the 92nd minute.
There was still time for a frenzied bombardment of the Hearts box by Celtic, but like the chances which fell to Ki, composure, technique and luck deserted the SPL champions.
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