CELTIC ensured they will remain in the title race until the last day of the season with a victory which could easily have been more emphatic, but this ill-tempered encounter is likely to be remembered for things other than football.
The match began in almost orthodox fashion with an early goal from Gary Hooper, but the sending-off of Hearts' David Obua in the 32nd minute was the signal for an already tense atmosphere to become increasingly ugly. The nadir came when an individual accosted Neil Lennon, but the behaviour of both sets of supporters could be the subject of the SPL observer's report.
In the circumstances, it was a wonder that both teams maintained their discipline as well as they did. Celtic basically wrapped up the points with their second goal five minutes into the second half, and Kris Commons' sending-off in the wake of his goal - Celtic's third - meant both sides finished a man down. That dismissal will deprive Celtic of his services for Sunday's last game of the season, but if Lennon's side play with the purpose and determination they showed here they should see off Motherwell even without the man who was the best player on the field last night.
No matter how damaging last week's loss at Inverness may turn out to be for Celtic, this game was the first in which defeat would definitely end their title hopes. There was therefore an anticipation that the longer the match went on without a goal, the more nervous Lennon's team would become, and so it was no surprise that they began the game at a high tempo, and showing a determination to impose themselves.
Lennon's selection, in which Georgios Samaras returned from his weekend suspension and Charlie Mulgrew and Glenn Loovens also featured, displayed an awareness that his team could be in for a tough physical contest. Rather than being forced to fight to take the lead, though, they were handed it by an error of judgment from Marius Zaliukas.
The Hearts captain, restored to the home defence along with goalkeeper Marian Kello after both men were excluded from the team by club owner Vladimir Romanov at the weekend, made the mistake of trying to run the ball out of defence. He was dispossessed by Commons, who ran into the box then slipped a pass to Hooper on his right.
The striker confidently slotted the ball past Kello for his 20th goal of the season, and any nerves Celtic had felt vanished.
Hearts should have been the team playing in a more carefree manner, having finally secured third place thanks to Rangers' win over Dundee United 24 hours earlier. But, while the home support were in a celebratory mood thanks to that qualification for the Europa League, the team was disjointed and struggled to gain a foothold in the Celtic half.
It nearly got worse for Hearts shortly after that 11th-minute opener when the normally reliable Kello fumbled a Commons shot on to the post. The ball broke back to the Scotland international after a scramble, but he shot wide of the other post to allow Hearts to breathe again.
The match settled into something just short of fever pitch. Celtic, their confidence boosted immensely by that goal, launched wave after wave of attacks.
Hearts could do little but defend with increasing desperation, their only forays upfield being out balls to Ryan Stevenson or Stephen Elliott which were swiftly mopped up by Celtic. Given the frenzied nature of proceedings, it was curious that the next incident of note, with a little more than half an hour played, should be an almost innocuous affair.
As Obua chased a loose ball a few yards inside the Celtic half right in front of the main stand, Mulgrew ushered it out of play, placing his body between the ball and his opponent and seeming to make contact with his shoulder. Obua reacted angrily and appeared to give Mulgrew a light push on the back with his right hand, then swung his left hand over the top of his opponent's head.
Referee Craig Thomson was going to allow play to continue, but assistant referee Keith Sorbie flagged and, after a brief conversation, the Hearts player was shown the red card. Sorbie seemed to think Obua had tried to punch Mulgrew, in which case a red card would have been appropriate, but replays of the incident made it look less serious, meriting no more than a yellow.
Hearts played their best football of the half after the Ugandan's dismissal and, shortly before the interval, an Elliott cross from the right was intercepted by Loovens just before it could get to Stevenson. That was as close as the home team would get to an equaliser and, within minutes of the restart, they found themselves two down with no way back into the match.
The goal, five minutes into the second period, was the best move of the match. Mark Wilson, Hooper and Ki Sung-Yueng were all involved in the build-up, then Hooper strode on to the ball to shoot past Kello.
Something close to mayhem descended on Tynecastle after that, as a man ran out from the main stand and made his way towards Lennon. Security staff wrestled him to the ground, but not before the Celtic manager had reacted angrily.The fact a football match was going on then became almost incidental for a time, as the ejection of a Celtic supporter from the away end was followed by a brawl between those attempting to carry out the ejection and a number of other fans. Once order was restored and attention reverted to the game, it became apparent little had changed. Celtic continued their search for goals, and only a fine instinctive save by Kello kept out a Commons shot from a Mulgrew free-kick.
Commons made it 3-0 from close range with little more than a dozen minutes left, and ran off the pitch to celebrate with the Celtic fans. Having been booked shortly before that for a foul on Craig Thomson, he was then sent off for a second yellow card.
Hearts: Kello, Jonsson, Zaliukas, Bouzid, Craig Thomson, Obua, Black, McGowan, Skacel (Glen 77), Stevenson (Barr 77), Elliott (Driver 64). Subs Not Used: MacDonald, Robinson, Mrowiec, Stewart.
Celtic: Forster, Wilson (Cha 84), Loovens, Majstorovic, Izaguirre (Maloney 77), Ki, Brown, Mulgrew, Commons, Samaras (Murphy 85), Hooper. Subs Not Used: Zaluska, Stokes, Rogne, Forrest.