CELTIC EXTENDED THEIR lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership but were forced to work hard for a 2-0 win over a Jamie MacDonald-inspired Hearts at Parkhead.
In stark contrast to three weeks ago, when Celtic dished out a record 7-0 defeat to Hearts, the Jambos put in a resolute defensive performance with MacDonald in impressive form.
The ‘keeper seemed to thwart Celtic at every opportunity as he made superb stops to keep out efforts from Anthony Stokes, Kris Commons and Joe Ledley in a goalless first half.
He continued to frustrate the Hoops until the 63rd minute, when Commons, who grabbed a hat-trick in the 7-0 win, fired them in front as Celtic scored for the 35th consecutive league game.
Commons then came to the rescue for Celtic when he cleared Dylan McGowan’s header off the line as the Hearts defender looked to have grabbed a 90th-minute equaliser.
Substitute James Forrest sealed the win with a goal three minutes into stoppage time as he latched on to a Georgios Samaras pass to finish past MacDonald and put Celtic 10 points clear of second-placed Inverness, who have a game in hand.
For Hearts, their performance helped ease the memory of their Scottish Cup thrashing by Celtic but Gary Locke’s financially-stricken side continue to languish at the bottom of the table.
With Mikael Lustig ruled out for four months following a double hip operation, Darnell Fisher was handed a rare start at right-back by Neil Lennon.
Injury-hit Hearts, who were only able to name five substitutes on the bench, were forced to make three changes with youngster Adam King handed his debut.
MacDonald had to endure a torrid time three weeks ago when the sides met at Tynecastle and the stopper was called into action immediately when Commons latched on to a Joe Ledley ball over the top of the Jambos’ defence.
However, the out-rushing MacDonald did well to block and then made a fabulous save to deny Stokes when he somehow tipped the Irishman’s first-time shot on to the bar.
MacDonald’s impressive form continued as he turned Commons’ bouncing volley round the post before getting down low to smother a shot from Teemu Pukki after the Finn collected an excellent dinked pass from Stokes.
Celtic dominated as they probed for an opening but MacDonald continued to frustrate them in their quest as he pulled off a wonderful reflex save to stop Ledley’s diving header on the line after the Welshman connected with Commons’ excellent delivery.
Forrest replaced Nir Biton at the break and the winger immediately injected some urgency into Celtic’s play.
The breakthrough came in the 63rd minute when Commons grabbed his 13th goal of the season. Scott Brown threaded a ball through to his fellow midfielder, who sent an angled first time shot beyond MacDonald from six yards out.
The Hoops came close to doubling their advantage moments later when Forrest found Ledley in the box but the Welsh international’s effort came back off the base of the post.
MacDonald continued to thwart Celtic as he scrambled to tip a Commons header over the bar before Hearts came close to grabbing a last-gasp equaliser. McGowan bulleted a header towards goal from a corner but Commons was on hand to clear his effort off the line.
And Celtic grabbed a second three minutes into stoppage time when Forrest latched on to a Samaras pass before stepping inside his marker and lashing a shot past MacDonald.