Celtic moved into their 5th domestic cup final in a row as they beat Hearts thanks to 3 second-half goals to reach the Scottish League Cup final. After a tense buildup as a result of the SFA’s controversial handling of the location of the semi-finals, with Celtic frustrated at having to play in Edinburgh at Murrayfield, the opening 45 minutes of this encounter were rather anti-climactic; it was messy, rough, with little clear chances.
Both teams were without key players – Celtic missing Scott Brown and Dedryck Boyata, Hearts still without long-term absentees Christophe Berra and John Souttar – but it was the Jambos who were dealt a further injury blow when captain Steven Naismith had to be substituted after only 7 minutes.
Celtic fans enjoyed the sight of the antagonising forward pulling up unexpectedly as the Hearts faithful watched on in stunned silence. His strike partner, Steven MacLean, was lucky to not also have to leave the field of play after cheekily grabbing Kouassi Eboue’s private parts after having already been booked for a loose elbow on Mikael Lustig.
The grinding first-half finally burst into life in the dying moments as Scott Sinclair unleashed a vicious shot that goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal did well to tip past the post. A remarkable third substitution of the game arrived at the beginning of the second half as Ryan Christie joined the action in place of Olivier Ntcham. Managers and pundits frequently talk of the need for fringe players making the most of any minutes on the pitch they receive and Christie definitively did that; he was involved, in parts large and small, in all 3 goals.
The first arrived in debatable circumstances as Christie went down under minimal contact just inside the box but it was enough for referee Willie Collum to point to the spot. Sinclair duly buried the penalty, giving himself a much-needed confidence boost too. Christie then sent a tame shot straight at Zlamal and the normally reliable Pole embarrassingly spilled it, recovered before the ball could cross the goal-line but a gleeful James Forrest poked it into the empty net. Celtic had finally settled and began to find greater space in the Hearts defence, the majestic Tom Rogic gliding around the opposition half and finding his passing range. Christie then saved his best for last, steering a perfect side-footed shot into the top-left corner beyond Zlama’s outstretched hand.
The Scottish midfielder has always had the talent, enjoying a successful loan spell at Aberdeen last season, and this showing certainly will earn him further first-team opportunities under Brendan Rodgers, particularly with rivals Brown injured and Ntcham struggling for form. Craig Levein’s side came into this tie with hope, being the league leaders, but it was the champions who ultimately proved their dominance.