In the end it was 69 and out for Celtic. An unbeaten domestic run which started with a 7-0 thrashing of Motherwell in Ronny Deila’s final match in charge in May 2016 was ended this weekend in surprise fashion with defeat to Hearts.
But while Deila started the run, it was Brendan Rodgers who can take all the credit for it.
His first season in charge, 2016/17, saw Celtic avoid defeat in 47 games against Scottish opposition. They won the Premiership, the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup in an unprecedented unbeaten domestic treble.
And while they won’t be repeating that incredible feat in 2017/18 after a shocking 4-0 loss to Hearts, the run, which included 60 wins, nine draws, 38 clean sheets and 197 goals, will see this current crop of Celtic players go down in history.
But the focus in Scotland will now be on whether other sides can follow Hearts’ blueprint. Celtic can be beaten, it’s just a case of being brave and taking risks against the Bhoys.
How did Hearts shock Celtic?
It wasn’t a fortuitous 1-0 which brought an end to Celtic’s incredible run, it was a thumping 4-0 defeat.
And there’s no doubt Hearts deserved it. The game proved to be the first Scottish fixture that a team had managed to stop Celtic scoring under Rodgers, who was quick to give their praise opponents after the match.
“First of all, I need to give credit to Hearts,” the former Liverpool boss said. “It’s a thoroughly deserved win; they were the better team.
“We didn’t cope with their physicality in our backline, we made too many mistakes. We could have played five games today and not scored a goal.”
Rodgers accepted in recent weeks the run couldn’t last forever. That’s probably because his players have been competing almost non-stop over the past month.
The match was their ninth in 29 days and with four fixtures still to come before 2018, this period was always going to be the most likely for an upset.
But, of course, that shouldn’t take anything away from Hearts, who were aggressive, committed and full of energy and quality.
From the first whistle, lined up in a 4-2-3-1, which mirrored their opponents, they hassled Celtic with their intense pressing, getting at the perceived weakness by many – the centre of the Bhoys’ defence.
Don Cowie was outstanding in the middle of the park and even makeshift central defender Michael Smith was at the top of the game.
Levein had Hearts playing narrow, which isolated the threat of Celtic’s wide men, with Scott Sinclair struggling to be his usual influential self.
But it’s clear that the high press was the main way that Craig Levein targeted beating the champions. Many teams sit back against Rodgers side, trying to limit the damage. Hearts decided to do the opposite, to be brave, to try something different. It paid off.
Speaking after the game, he revealed he’d looked at how Anderlecht had beaten Rodgers’ side before in the Champions League.
“We based our game plan on the Anderlecht game in terms of the high press, being brave at the back and going man-for-man at times,” he said.
“It’s a difficult thing to do because if they cut you open you could be 3-0 down before you bat an eyelid. The recovery runs from when they went to press and it didn’t work were the things that made all the difference today.
“It was certainly up there. With the nature of the circumstances and everything that’s happened in the last year its pleasing.
“All credit to Celtic to be in a position of going into a game to get their 70th without defeat. It shows a huge level of commitment, effort and quality to be able to do that. I’m just pleased our lads managed to be the team to end that run.”
What next for Celtic?
Levein believes Celtic have the ability to put another equally impressive run of results together: “I wouldn’t say they couldn’t go on another run and get to 70 the next time. That’s the quality they’ve got.”
Realistically, that is unlikely, but there’s no doubt Celtic shouldn’t be too down after finally losing domestically.
And unless they go on a particularly bad run, a title race isn’t on either.
But the defeat, and the manner of it, proved Rodgers’ concerns about issues in the centre of his defence.
That is why it looks like Marvin Compper is set for a move to Celtic Park, with Sportbuzzer saying he’s due in Glasgow for a medical. Considering Jozo Simunovic and Dedryck Boyata looked very shaky, bringing in another defender makes a lot of sense.
The fear for Rodgers is that other Scottish sides will try and succeed in copying Hearts. Managers will perhaps no longer set their teams up to sit back and hope Celtic are having an off day.
Perhaps they will follow suit in pressing high up the field and expose Celtic’s weak centre-backs, although the Compper move suggests the Bhoys are already trying to address that issue.
Ultimately the defeat could help Celtic. The millstone of being unbeaten has been lifted, so they can play more freely without the fear of losing.
Rodgers certainly isn’t worried: “We’ll be fine. We’ll recover. It was great support from the supporters at the end. I think they recognise what we’ve achieved over the last 18 months. But we’ll now hit the reset button.”
And that reset button could be very exciting indeed. Celtic are undoubtedly the best team in Scotland, and learning from their defeats could make them stronger, not only domestically but continentally too.
Rodgers has proven himself as a talented manager and he’ll want to guide Celtic out a Champions League group stage before too long.
By learning from defeats like the one against Hearts, he’ll be able to see how his team reacts to adversity and can use that knowledge to refine what is already a very good Celtic team.