NO club in Scotland was in less need of being reminded of Gary Hooper’s potency and value than Hearts were on Saturday.
Celtic - Hooper (2, 85), Samaras (12), Lassad (90)
Hearts - Holt (69)
Referee: I Brines
Surely no club would be more relieved than the Tynecastle outfit to see the English striker depart the SPL in the current transfer window if Celtic are unable to fend off the growing interest in their leading scorer.
Hooper’s double in this commanding victory for the Scottish champions took his tally against Hearts to 12 goals in 11 appearances in the fixture since he arrived in Glasgow two and a half years ago, the most he has scored against any opponents.
His typically clinical strikes from close range told only half the story of an irresistible performance by the 24-year-old, which underlined why a move to the English Premier League is surely inevitable.
It remains to be seen whether Celtic can delay that switch beyond the end of January and retain the services of a player who can maximise their prospects of further success in the Champions League when they take on Juventus in the last 16 tie next month.
Hooper’s all-round display against an outclassed Hearts side was of the highest order, his link-up work and intelligent movement matching the standard of his finishing.
It certainly backed up Celtic manager Neil Lennon’s assertion that Norwich City’s £5 million offer for Hooper, which was rejected immediately by the SPL leaders last Thursday, does not come close to reflecting his true worth.
While Celtic are bracing themselves for increased bids for Hooper in the remaining 11 days of the transfer window, there is optimism within the club’s dressing room that the former Scunthorpe United man is content to stick around for some time yet.
“In the current market, he’s worth way more than £5 million,” said his team-mate Adam Matthews, another eye-catching performer for Celtic on Saturday.
“He proved again against Hearts that he is a quality player and a great asset to the team. The club don’t want to sell him, he’s enjoying it here and I think he wants to stay.
“When he first came to the club, he was seen as just a goalscorer, but, especially this season, he’s progressed his game to far more than that. He drops into pockets and gets us playing.
“He’s quality as a player and quality as a goalscorer, so when you get someone like him in the box, you are going to get goals.
“Everyone is looking forward to playing Juventus in the Champions League. It’s a massive tie. Hoops himself is looking forward to it, so, as far as I know, he’s happy to stay and I’m hoping that is the case.
“He is very down to earth and very relaxed. I get on well with him and he’s a brilliant lad. To be fair, there are no big egos in the side.
“We all get on well and he is just one of the lads who is part of that. He showed against Hearts with the goals he scored that all of the transfer talk isn’t going to affect him. He just has to keep it going. Obviously it’s good publicity he’s getting, but I’m sure he’s happy to stay.”
Hooper set the tone for a largely one-sided affair with the opening goal after just 90 seconds, tapping in from close range after Matthews had made the first of umpteen surging runs down the right to provide the ammunition.
It was a torturous opening spell for Hearts left-back Kevin McHattie, one of several young players in the visitors’ line-up, although he did appear to be fouled by Kris Commons in the build-up to Celtic’s second goal in the 12th minute. Referee Iain Brines, typically erratic throughout, waved play on and when Jamie MacDonald spilled Commons’ shot, Georgios Samaras prodded home his ninth goal of the season.
Hearts manager John McGlynn found some comfort in the fact his players did not crumble completely after such a horrendous start, at least showing some resilience to prevent Celtic adding to their lead before half-time. The introduction of Jamie Walker at the start of the second half injected a degree of attacking purpose to the Gorgie side, although Celtic remained largely in control of territory and possession.
Even Hearts would have been startled when they halved the deficit in the 69th minute, Jason Holt’s shot taking a deflection off Mikael Lustig to completely wrong-foot Celtic goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska, deputising for the injured Fraser Forster.
It would have been a salvage job of astonishing proportions if Hearts had managed to snaffle an equaliser, but Celtic properly reflected their dominance with two goals in the closing minutes.
Scott Brown burst into the penalty area to set up Hooper’s second of the afternoon, his 20th of the season, before substitute Lassad Nouioui met Emilio Izaguirre’s cross with a superb left-foot finish to make it 4-1 in stoppage time.
Celtic, who will look to stretch their nine-point lead at the top of the table when they entertain Dundee United tomorrow night, looked as though their winter break in Marbella had worked a treat.
“It definitely helped freshen us up,” agreed Matthews. “You could see from the first whistle as we started really well.
“After the break, we maybe took our foot from the pedal a little bit and lost a sloppy goal, but we showed our quality at the end again and could have won by more than 4-1. We have gelled really well as a team this season and we have shown that in our games. We have played more games than anyone else and we’re still in all four of the competitions that we started in. That shows how much of a team we are. If we can keep hold of Gary and Victor Wanyama in this transfer window, it will make us even better and that is what we are hoping to do.
“We showed against Barcelona and in the other matches in the Champions League that this is a massive club. I’m sure people still want to come up here and play in the SPL. In the Champions League, we have shown not just people in the UK but people in Europe that we are a top-quality team. We have to keep that going and, hopefully, progress to the last eight.”