Vakoun Bayo may prove to have been worth the wait for Celtic. The Ivory Coast international striker has experienced a slow-burning start to his career with the Scottish champions but marked his first starting appearance with a match-winning contribution against Hearts.
Signed for £2 million back in January, injury has hampered Bayo’s efforts to establish himself in the Celtic side. But his performance on a sweltering afternoon in the east end of Glasgow suggested Neil Lennon has a decent alternative to Odsonne Edouard and Leigh Griffiths for the central striking role.
The Hearts camp left Celtic Park cursing their own part in Bayo’s success, insisting the double he claimed were in fact own goals by Christophe Berra and Craig Halkett. While TV replays are less than conclusive, it would be churlish to take any of the shine off the 22-year-old day in the sun.
Celtic were worthy winners against a Hearts side who have now won just two of their last 17 league games under Craig Levein. They struggled to lay a glove on Neil Lennon’s men who maintained their 100 percent winning start to the defence of their title ahead of next Sunday’s much-anticipated trip to Ibrox.
Bayo’s breakthrough goal arrived as Celtic began to find some fluency in their attacking third of the pitch after a drab opening to the contest.
The scrappy nature of those early exchanges had suited Hearts who set up to frustrate the champions, midfielder Glenn Whelan deployed in a screening role just in front of the back four. The Irish veteran brought composure and tactical awareness to the visitors as he made his debut.
Celtic found it difficult to tempt Hearts out of their shape, the hosts’ only move of any note in the opening 20 minutes coming when Boli Bolingoli’s pass allowed Callum McGregor to find on the left side of the penalty area but he dragged his shot across the face of goal.
There was an unfortunate disruption to Hearts defence when right-back Michael Smith was forced to limp off, replaced by Jamie Brandon.
As Celtic gradually gathered some momentum, Halkett came to Hearts’ rescue twice in quick succession. The central defender showed admirable alertness to cut out Olivier Ntcham’s cross ahead of Bayo in the six yard box, then stepped in to clear the danger again when Ntcham’s brilliant reverse pass played in Ryan Christie.
It was a sustained spell of pressure from Celtic and goalkeeper Joel Pereira made a decent save to keep out a close range header from Bayo who had climbed to meet a Christie corner in the 25th minute.
But the on-loan Manchester United man was beaten by the striker four minutes later. Christie’s raking through ball sent James Forrest scampering free down the left. The winger’s lofted cross caused hesitation between Pereira and Christophe Berra with a slip by the Hearts captain allowing Bayo to bundle home from around six yards.
It had been a quiet reintroduction to life at Celtic up until this point for Fraser Forster as he was drafted straight into the starting line-up following his season-long loan move from Southampton.
But he was forced into action seven minutes before the interval when he raced off his line to make a smart block at the feet of Conor Washington. As the ball broke outside Forster’s penalty area, his next touch was much clumsier as he brought down Loic Damour to earn himself a booking from referee Willie Collum.
As Celtic probed for a second goal, Halkett denied them once again when he stepped in ahead of Bayo who was primed to convert Kristoffer Ajer’s low cross from the right.
Any hopes Hearts had of mounting a recovery evaporated within the first 15 minutes of the second half as Celtic stormed into a 3-0 lead. Levein’s men paid a heavy price for a needless piece of hesitancy just outside their own penalty area by Damour.
The French midfielder dallied in possession and was robbed by Forrest who then linked with Christie to set up a shooting opportunity for McGregor. His left foot strike from around 22 yards was a pure as they come, giving Pereira no chance as he was beaten to his left.
The Portuguese ‘keeper had to retrieve the ball from his net again on the hour mark as Ajer, given licence all afternoon to surge forward from right-back, was rewarded for his sense of adventure. The big Norwegian’s low cross towards the edge of the six yard box was flicked home in predatory fashion by Bayo as he was challenged by Halkett.
The gangly forward came agonisingly close to a hat-trick when he leapt to meet a Forrest cross and saw his close range header smash back off Pereira’s left hand post. Bayo then appeared to succumb to cramp, receiving a thunderous ovation from the home fans as he left the field to be replaced by Leigh Griffiths with 12 minutes remaining.
Hearts had scarcely been evident as an attacking force in the second half but they scavenged a crumb of comfort when they pulled a goal back in the 81st minute. Celtic captain Scott Brown was penalised for a challenge on Sean Clare inside the area, presenting Washington with the chance to score from the penalty spot.
It looked as if Forster had marked his second ‘debut’ for Celtic with a memorable penalty save as he got down to his left to parry Washington’s fairly tame effort but the striker reacted well to thump home the rebound.