NEIL Lennon savoured his 100th victory as Celtic manager last night, a landmark statistic achieved in utterly emphatic fashion as his team overwhelmed Hearts to spectacularly reinforce their status as unbackable odds-on favourites to retain the SPL title.
Scorers: Celtic - Nouioui (10), Lustig (22), Stevenson (30 og), Hooper (83)
Bookings: Hearts - Paterson; Celtic - Ambrose, Wilson, Wanyama
A recent run which had seen Celtic drop 10 points in their previous five league games, prompting some talk that there may yet be a genuine and
sustained championship race this season, was firmly set aside by Lennon’s players.
In a match more competitive for long spells than the scoreline suggests, Celtic simply had too much where it mattered most for a Hearts side which lacked nothing in spirt but was outgunned by the rampant champions who were 3-0 up after just half an hour.
While Hearts rallied bravely, they never looked likely to claw their way back into the contest. Gary Hooper sealed Celtic’s
victory in the closing stages, Hearts even denied a consolation goal when the outstanding Fraser Forster saved a late penalty kick from Marius Zaliukas.
If the relatively subdued
atmosphere at some of their
recent home games had contributed to Celtic’s indifferent SPL form, then there was no doubt that the breathless intensity of this encounter suited Lennon’s men perfectly.
In keeping with the traditions of this fixture, Hearts looked to set a ferocious tempo from the start. But, although John
McGlynn’s men contributed significantly to a terrific opening half hour of committed and positive football, it was Celtic whose superior composure and incisiveness in the attacking third of the pitch took them into such a comfortable lead.
In the search for more of a cutting edge, Lennon tinkered with his formation once again. The recall of Lassad to his starting line-up for the first time in over a month reaped a rich
reward, the Tunisian joining Kris Commons and Hooper in a fluid front three which, as quickly became clear, would frequently trouble the home defence on the counter attack.
Hooper set up the first opportunity of the night for Commons, whose fourth-minute shot was smartly saved by Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald. A swift response from the home side saw them have strong appeals for a penalty waved aside by referee Willie Collum when Lassad appeared to strike the ball with his arm as Celtic scrambled a corner kick to safety.
Lassad was soon using his anatomy in more orthodox manner to plunder the magnificent 10th-minute opening goal for Celtic. They broke at pace to stretch the Hearts defence, Commons produced a fine delivery from the left and Lassad latched on to it at the far post with a thumping first-time right-foot volley which beat MacDonald low to his left hand.
Hearts initially seemed unfazed by that setback, continuing to take the game to Celtic with considerable purpose.
Callum Paterson passed up a glorious chance to level five minutes later, the youngster mis-timing his jump and failing to execute what should have been a simple close-range headed finish from Ryan Stevenson’s free-kick.
Paterson had been left unmarked, prompting a furious reaction from Celtic assistant manager Johan Mjallby, who raced to the edge of the technical area to berate Efe Ambrose for his
Hearts then had another penalty claim rejected when
Paterson went down under a challenge from Kelvin Wilson, wearing the Celtic captain’s armband for the night, but on this occasion it seemed clear the defender had won the ball cleanly.
Celtic doubled their lead in the 22nd minute with another goal which saw them utilise their width and pace to excellent effect.
Mikael Lustig surged down the right, linking with Lassad who drove the ball low across the face of the Hearts penalty area. Darren Barr’s attempted clearance broke into the path of Lustig, whose close-range shot was strong enough to beat MacDonald, despite the goalkeeper getting a hand to the ball.
While Celtic were now in firm control, Hearts had not been drained of their resolve and visiting goalkeeper Fraser Forster had to be at his best to prevent the home side regaining a foothold in the match.
The big Englishman parried Stevenson’s powerfully struck free-kick then showed great
reactions to keep out a follow-up header from Marius Zaliukas.
If Hearts required any further evidence that this simply wasn’t to be their night, it came in the manner of Celtic’s third goal on the half-hour mark.
Commons swept the ball over from the right, finding Charlie Mulgrew who drove it low back towards the six-yard box. In his attempt to clear, Stevenson merely succeeded in diverting the ball beyond his own goalkeeper from just a couple of yards out.
Ambrose and Victor Wanyama both picked up bookings for Celtic before half-time, both for fouls on the lively Jamie Walker, but the champions left the field at the interval in as commanding a position as Lennon could possibly have imagined.
Whatever resistance Hearts were going to provide in the
second half was always likely to be purely of the token variety but they maintained a pace to their work which at least ensured that Celtic could not afford to drop down the gears dramatically.
The contribution made by Forster was a clear indication that the match was being far more keenly contested than reflected in the scoreline. The giant Celtic goalkeeper made another outstanding save four minutes after the restart, plunging low to his right to keep out a sweetly struck free-kick from Kevin McHattie which he must have seen late as it flew beyond his defensive wall.
Celtic were less visible as an
attacking force in the second half, but remained menacing on the counter attack.
Commons fired a shot narrowly over from the edge of the box, then Lassad had a low effort from distance saved by MacDonald as they reminded the home side of their potential to turn the game into a rout.
Commons enraged the Hearts players when he needlessly taunted them by playing keepy-uppy before returning possession to them after a drop-ball had been ordered and Ryan McGowan squared up to the Celtic forward.
But the match was largely free of the kind of flashpoints which have often erupted between these sides here in recent years.
Hooper made it 4-0 with seven minutes remaining, turning in a Mulgrew cross from close range. Hearts earned a penalty in the 89th minute, Wilson fouling Stevenson just inside the area, but Forster was in unbeatable form and duly dived to his right to keep out Zaliukas’ effort from the spot.