Wednesday, May 11, 2011

SPL: Happy Hearts Third As Celtic Come Calling

Third place was eventually delivered to Hearts in the least stressful way.

Dundee United's defeat to Rangers last night gave Hearts the league spot - and the European qualification - that they have deserved.

Things might have fizzled out of late but Hearts gave us one the major narratives, one of the major positive narratives, of the season.

Talk of a sustained title challenge, or at least an Old Firm splitting challenge, were to prove fanciful.

But in an eleven game unbeaten run Hearts at least gave a glimpse of what a tripartite system might look like.

A 1-0 victory over Rangers showed them at their best. Doughty and stubborn in defence, a manager who could react to the ebb and flow of the game and enough attacking talent to take a chance when it came along.

Rudi Skacel made an unexpected return to Tynecastle and, at times, looked like he'd never been away. David Templeton appears to be a Scotland cap in the making.

Kevin Kyle continued his SPL rejuvenation. There's something incredibly effective about the ungainly striker and Hearts found the best way to use him. His injury robbed them of their focal point. The way the season fizzled out in his absence suggests either a more reliable Plan B or a more reliable understudy should be a priority.

Marian Kello was the inspiration behind Hearts going five games without conceding - the longest run of any SPL team this season - and might count himself unlucky not to have figured in the player of the year reckoning.

At the end, as a dip in form stretched out the confirmation of third place, Jim Jefferies was deprived of Kello and then, for one game, his captain Marius Žaliūkas on the orders of hitherto mute Vladimir Romanov.

A minor skirmish or something more serious?

It's clearly left Jefferies unhappy. But it's not yet critical.

Which is probably for the best. When a manager does well he deserves the support of his owner. Especially when that manager has so clearly motivated by the best interests of the club.

It's a spat of the sort we've come to expect. But it's very much Romanov-lite.

We shouldn't let it detract us from saluting Hearts achievement in being deservedly crowned "best of the rest."

And I'm sure, whatever else has unsettled him this week, Jim Jefferies will be quietly relishing another European adventure.

Tonight in the SPL: Hearts v Celtic

One of the things that appeared to unsettle Jefferies were Neil Lennon's comments about the quality of the challenge teams were putting up against Rangers in the final throes of this long season.

Jefferies, who struggles to hide disgruntlement, let it be known that his gruntlement was duly dissed.

Lennon countered that he'd made an evidence based observation that had been misrepresented by the media.

As so we continue to go round in our ever decreasing circles.

The evidence suggests that Hearts have a bad record away to the Old Firm. That 4-0 defeat at Ibrox joins 3-0 and 4-0 defeats at Celtic Park as proof of an allergy to the westbound carriageway of the M8.

A different story at Tynecastle though where Celtic and Rangers have both been beaten and Rangers' two wins have come courtesy of tight encounters.

That fits in with Hearts general trend over the seasons, a better than average record against the Old Firm that depends on home form for its success.

All of which is nothing new. But, whatever he meant, Lennon might have made a tactical error. Hearts' season is over. Jefferies now has a way of motivating his players. Players who will already be smarting over leaving Ibrox on the end of a hammering after spending large periods of the game seemingly comfortable enough in their parity with the league leaders.

So further spice has been added to an encounter that often provides a bucketful of drama.

Celtic, as we know, need to win. Lose and Rangers get the title with a game to spare. Win and the championship goes to the last day and anything can happen.

There are easier places than a fired up Tynecastle to keep your title charge on track.

This is a Celtic win for me. But it could be a stoater.

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