Hartley hailed as Hearts close in on Champions League spot

HEARTS interim manager Valdas Ivanauskas hailed midfielder Paul Hartley as the “best player in Scotland” after their 3-0 win over Celtic left the Edinburgh club one victory short of securing Champions League football next season.

Hartley’s inswinging free-kick after seven minutes was headed by Hoops defender Stephen McManus past his own keeper but the Scotland midfielder’s second set-piece from 25 yards two minutes later gave Parkhead goalkeeper Artur Boruc no chance.

A second-half strike by Roman Bednar clinched the three points against the champions and left Hearts needing only a win over Aberdeen on Wednesday to guarantee second place in the Bank of Scotland Premier League.

Hartley’s contribution to a terrific season for the Gorgie club has not gone unnoticed by the Lithuanian coach who said:

“Paul has been a leader for us all season and a very important part of our team.

“He is the best player in Scotland, no question. You can see how many important goals he has scored for us this season but even without his goals he is a big player for us.

“It was a huge game for the club and now we are just one step away from a Champions League place. The result was good as was the three points we got but the most important thing was our best performance of the season.

“The players were concentrated and they have learned from their mistakes and I was happy with their quality, discipline and energy. We were under pressure today but there is only one thing I can say about our performance and that is that it was quality.”

Celtic manager Gordon Strachan denied his side have put their tools away for the season and claimed differing fortunes from set-pieces separated the two teams on the day.

He said: “I don’t accept that my players have switched off.

“There has been an unreal atmosphere around the place but I hope I’m in the same position this time next year. There’s not many managers, because of how their players perform, who have to figure out how to go about the last six games.”

“We played well enough but Hearts deserved to win although we had enough chances during the match. Their big goalkeeper (Craig Gordon) had three fantastic saves. The last time we played here we had less saves to make and we won the game so it was an unusual match.

“Their first goal, an own goal, was a freak but the second one was a fantastic strike.”

HEARTS: Gordon, Neilson, Pressley, Tall (Berra 80), Fyssas, Cesnauskis (Barasa 83), Hartley, Aguiar, Skacel, Bednar (Pospisil 74), Jankauskas.

CELTIC: Boruc, Telfer, Varga, McManus, Wilson, Nakamura, Keane, Lennon (Petrov 66), Maloney, Dublin (Hartson 73), Zurawski (Pearson 69).

Referee: A Freeland.

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