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Celtic 2 Hearts 0: Season of goodwill

IT is always nice to spare a thought for those less fortunate than yourself at Christmas and luckily Hearts found Celtic in charitable mood yesterday.

Kris Commons puts Celtic ahead by rolling the ball past an inspired Jamie MacDonald                                         Photograph: Jeff Holmes/PA
Kris Commons puts Celtic ahead by rolling the ball past an inspired Jamie MacDonald Photograph: Jeff Holmes/PA

This was to be no turkey shoot like the 7-0 Scottish Cup walloping the Parkhead side inflicted on the same opponents on their own patch as recently as the first day of advent, as a combination of heroics from goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald and some occasionally half-hearted finishing kept this one theoretically alive until the death.

Indeed, had Dylan McGowan's header not been nodded off the line by Kris Commons in the final minute, this rag-tag bunch of teenagers from Gorgie might even have had the Yuletide miracle of a Parkhead point to celebrate.

Having said all that, when the final scoreline was displayed, Celtic fans will still able to enjoy a happy Kris-mas. Commons scored the 13th of a prolific campaign - his nearest contender in the top scorers stakes is Anthony Stokes with six - to calm the nerves, before substitute James Forrest confirmed his return to form with a fine goal with virtually the last kick which put a gloss on the score. It also allowed them to unwrap a pleasing festive statistic: the first time since 2003 they had arrived at Christmas Day unbeaten in the league. Johan Mjallby, a member of that team, deputising on post-match duties for manager Neil Lennon, who was nursing a jaw injury, said the team had not redefined their goals for the season, and staying unbeaten for the remaining 22 Premiership games was their new priority.

"There is no European football left this season so now we have to set new incentives for the players and ourselves as well," said Mjallby. "Being unbeaten is going to be very important for us. Now the target is to try to go 20 games unbeaten and take it from there.

"You always want to play perfect football, and score bundles of goals, but sometimes you have to earn the right and work hard. Hearts made it hard for us so we are quite happy with the three points and being unbeaten."

Commons was more reticent to set targets, although you got the impression that challenging his best-ever goals tally was on his mind. "I have not set any targets so it is not like I am going to be shooting from here, there and everywhere," said Commons. "But it is nice when you are in a bit of a vein of form. I have been on the other end of the stick where I have scored the one goal in the season so it is swings and roundabouts."

The portents certainly looked bleak for the visitors as kick-off approached. Hearts boss Gary Locke named a side with an average age of 21, supported by just five subs, after deciding he didn't have the stomach to include another couple of teenagers who were still in full- time education as recently as July.

Celtic named all but two of the same starting line-up which had stuck seven past MacDonald earlier this month, but on yesterday's evidence, that was a result the goalkeeper appeared to take rather personally.

Twice within the first eight minutes he had defied Celtic, first parrying at the feet of Commons following an excellent Virgil Van Dijk pass, then using the bar to keep out a prodded effort from Anthony Stokes.

Commons and Teemu Pukki were both held at bay before the best save of the lot arrived, kicking away Joe Ledley's goal-bound header from point-blank range.

"I was just happy to make some saves this time round," MacDonald said. "Last time I conceded seven so I felt I had a point to prove today."

If the Parkhead side were in charitable mood, the same didn't apply - at least as far as Hearts are concerned - to referee Euan Norris. The visitors felt they should have had the throw-in at the right-back area before Scott Brown smartly played in Commons to guide in the opener with his right foot. "We had a harsh lesson the last time we played Celtic, but to a man they were fantastic today and kept their shape," said Locke afterwards. "But if it was our throw-in then it was a sore one to take."

Still, the second goal proved elusive - as a combination of the post and MacDonald defied Ledley one more time. Commons had headed Dylan McGowan's late header away from under his own bar by the times it did eventually arrive, substitute Georgios Samaras feeding Forrest, who feinted beyond the backtracking Brad McKay before finishing tidily.

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