Hearts breaker for Deila as late goals cost Hoops points
Hearts 2-2 Celtic
Published 28/12/2015 | 02:30
The online petition by disenchanted Celtic fans calling for Ronny Deila's departure will have gained a few more signatories after a draw which saw them concede equalisers in stoppage time in each half.
However, although they have now dropped five points in two games, this performance was markedly better - particularly in the first half - than the lamentable display in the previous weekend's home defeat by Motherwell.
That said, well taken goals by Nir Bitton and Tom Rogic were nullified by errors which gifted Hearts their first rejoinder from Sam Nicholson and the free-kick which set up Osman Sow to ensure a share of the points in the dying seconds. The champions, though, remain a point clear of Aberdeen with a game in hand, and Deila is entitled to plead injuries to players who would otherwise be first picks.
Celtic began without injured Leigh Griffiths and Kris Commons. But by half-time, their casualty list had grown with the loss of Stuart Armstrong and Dedryck Boyata.
Hearts had their own gap to fill because of the suspension of Juanma Delgado, perpetrator of a headbutt against St Johnstone. In their case, however, the necessary selection of Gavin Reilly - a regular substitute but a rare starter since his arrival from Queen of the South - was to prove a handful for Celtic's central defenders.
The home side also toted a burden of seven consecutive defeats on their own turf, during which they had conceded 26 goals.
The run-up to this contest was scarcely more encouraging for Robbie Neilson and his players, who had drawn three and lost one of their four preceding fixtures. Their demeanour in the opening stages did not suggest a likely reversal of fortune and the deployment of three sitting midfielders in Prince Buaben, Arnaud Djoum and Morgaro Gomis did not prevent Rogic burgling their back line for a drive which was deflected behind for a corner kick, or for the Australian to feed Nadir Ciftci for a low effort, which was blocked by Neil Alexander.
These were clear warnings to Hearts about being indecisive around their own penalty area but they remained porous and both Ciftci and Callum McGregor were able to connect with headers in the box, although to no damaging effect.
Then, having failed to prevent Celtic sauntering around their box, Hearts invited them through the front door just before the break, courtesy of a howler by Blazej Augustyn, whose misplaced attempt at a headed clearance was redirected by McGregor to Bitton.
The Israeli drew Alexander and produced a textbook finish, opening out his body to curl his shot around the advancing goalkeeper. Hearts were shaken but also stirred to retaliation when Buaben's deep cross was inadvertently helped on by Mikael Lustig to Nicholson, whose reflexive response left Craig Gordon helpless.
After the interval the game was largely a scrap but when Celtic regained the lead it was the product of tidy footwork by Bitton to set up Rogic for a sharply driven shot into the roof of the net. "We started the game well but we were unlucky with a couple of injuries," said Deila. "It took time to get organised again. We got to 1-0 with a beautiful goal but then gave away an unnecessary goal before half-time.
"We showed that mental strength with another beautiful second. We were in control but there's always going to be some stress when you are 2-1 up in this kind of atmosphere."
Still, Celtic seemed to have done enough to see them home until, into added time, James Forrest needlessly fouled Billy King, prompting Deila to shake his head in frustration by the side of the pitch. The Norwegian's misgivings proved accurate when Buaben touched the ball to Sow, whose drive took a touch off Gary Mackay-Steven to spin away from Gordon into the far corner.
"Sometimes you need to give credit to an opponent when you see strikes like that," said Deila. "That was the hit of the year. There might have been a slight deflection and Craig Gordon had no chance. It was an unbelievable goal."
Neilson added to the praise: "He has got phenomenal ability and, when he steps up, you always think he is going to create something. Even when the ball comes into him, you always believe something will happen - a shot, a cross, something else.
"I felt in the first half we played really well, the second half was a bit of a non-event. I'll take a point - but I'd rather have three."