HAVING won the title five weeks ago, it merely required Celtic to go through the hoops, so to speak, of picking up the trophy that they so desperately wanted to regain from their greatest rivals.
Scorers: Celtic - Hooper (5, 8, 39, 66, 87)
Booking: Celtic - Brown; Hearts - Grainger
Neil Lennon’s side decided to have a party, however, and Hearts were the hapless victims of a Celtic side playing sweet football.
The news of a Green revolution at Ibrox may have overshadowed the final day of SPL season 2011-12, but Celtic and Gary Hooper in particular were determined to go out on a high. A five-goal, five-star showing from Hooper ended his second season as highest scorer at Parkhead with one serious question being asked – how can new England manager Roy Hodgson ignore such a striking talent?
The £2.4 million Celtic spent to bring the striker from Scunthorpe United was questioned in some quarters, not least because he had never played at the highest level, but the key to Hooper is that he has scored goals, learned so much and gained great experience on his rise from non-league football. And he’s still only 24.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, they say, and the snell wind and occasional rain ensured there was nothing heated about the way Celtic went about battering Hearts in return for their Scottish Cup semi-final reverse.
Clinical finishing added to precision passing pummelled Hearts in a first half in which they failed to get a single shot on target.
At times, the quality of Celtic’s passing play was mesmerising and that is the reaction it appeared to inflict on the Hearts players who seemed to have forgotten that a point would secure European football for them. As it happened, St Johnstone’s defeat by Rangers made that a moot point.
There is a thin line between understandable self protection in advance of a cup final and lying down to your opponents, and at times in the early part of the match and at the very end, the Hearts players came close to crossing it. They didn’t, of course, but what grim viewing this made for their supporters.
Manager Paulo Sergio made seven changes to his side ahead of the cup final and, like his opposite number Pat Fenlon yesterday, he saw his men beaten in a match which could have provided a psychological boost but instead may well be damaging to squad morale. But will this painful thrashing by Celtic – it could have been seven or eight-nil – cause more or less mental anguish than Hibs will suffer from their 0-2 defeat by Inverness? Only time will tell.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon had predicted that Hearts might be cagey and sent out an attacking 3-4-1-2 formation, with Kris Commons playing behind Giorgios Samaras and Hooper. The Celtic midfield was in especially fluid form, with Charlie Mulgrew’s ability to spray passes across the field from deep showing why he is a dual player of the year. That Celtic were two up within eight minutes was, in part, due to the lethargy of the Hearts defence as much as the swashbuckling start made by the champions.
Jamie MacDonald had already saved from Hooper when Celtic opened the scoring in the fifth minute. Emilio Izaguirre’s break led to Commons firing in a fierce shot which MacDonald did well to parry, only for Hooper to react quickest and fire the ball home. Hearts players appealed for offside, but replays showed that, while it was marginal, Hooper had been onside.
The second after eight minutes was a nightmare for Hearts captain Marius Zaliukas. Trying to watch Hooper, instead he had to confront Samaras who picked up the ball 30 yards out and breezed past him before laying the ball on for Hooper to score his second.
After a couple of rash tackles, Mehdi Taouil was replaced by Denis Prychynenko and Hearts did, at least, tighten up a tad with his arrival.
MacDonald then saved a 25-yard Mulgrew free kick before Hooper secured his hat-trick on 39 minutes with a penalty following Novikovas’ clumy challenge on Joe Ledley.
The Hearts players recovered their professionalism in the second half and even crafted a chance for David Templeton who shot wide on the hour mark. That, however, only served to stir up Celtic with Hooper taking advantage of Zaliukas’s failure to clear and round the goalkeeper to slot home his fourth.
As if to underline Celtic’s strength in depth, Israeli international Beram Keyal came on for captain Scott Brown and looked as if he had never been away following five months out injured.
After Hooper’s fifth and final goal in the 87th minute, the Hearts faces portrayed abject misery. They looked as if they wanted to be anywhere else – Hampden Park next Saturday perhaps?
Of those Hearts men afield, arguably only Scott Robinson enhanced his claim for a cup-final place, while all of the back four may well have damaged their chances of playing at Hampden.
At the end, Celtic were presented with the Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League trophy and Lennon, his coaching staff, the players and their children all took a lap of honour which no-one could deny they deserved. For the record, they finished 20 points clear of Rangers, so even without the ten-point administration deduction, the Ibrox side would still have finished ten points adrift.
Hearts, meanwhile, have six days to recover from this drubbing. Win the Scottish Cup, of course, and this defeat and all the miseries of a turbulent season will be forgotten in a trice.