Celtic were able to gain some measure of revenge for the 4-0 trouncing which saw the end of the Invincibles’ run back in December, even if visitors Hearts were able to salvage a ration of respect from a contest which had at one point looked certain to be a complete hiding.
New signing Charly Musonda must have felt satisfied with his choice of loan destination as the January addition witnessed his new team-mates rip apart a previously formidable back-line in 35 first-half minutes. The youngster, whose 18-month move from Chelsea was confirmed on Monday evening, made his debut midway through the second period to rapturous applause, though by then the game had long been settled.
Having had come within seconds of making it nine consecutive clean sheets in their match with Motherwell just three days prior, the away defence seemed determined to truly soil their previously pristine record.
The Ladbrokes Premiership leaders did dominate the contest, but their opponents didn’t half make it easy on them with some uncharacteristically poor defending.
The only negative for Brendan Rodgers would have been the failure to take advantage of further generosity after the break.
The Celtic boss opted for four changes to the side that defeated Hibs 1-0 at the weekend, though decided to keep the same 3-5-2 shape. Two of those changes were enforced with Leigh Griffiths and Craig Gordon ruled out through injury for four and 12 weeks, respectively. In came Moussa Dembele and Dorus de Vries, while there were places for Eboue Koussai in the centre and Odsonne Edouard alongside Dembele in attack. Hearts made five changes to the side who drew with Motherwell as Craig Levein continued with his squad rotation for the fourth match in ten days. Kyle Lafferty returned from suspension to lead the line, flanked by Don Cowie and David Milinkovic.
Steven Naismith was a notable, though unsurprising omission. The on-loan Norwich attacker had completed three 90-minute games since his move north of the Border. Prior to that he hadn’t played since August.
The visitors looked to recreate their high-pressing game from the last encounter between the sides, though that mission became a lot tougher just three minutes in. Celtic’s front two combined as Dembele held off Christophe Berra at the halfway line. Edouard then picked up the loose ball and drove through the gap in the away defence. Despite having 50 yards to travel and half a team chasing after him, the 20-year-old belied his inexperience to keep his cool and finish emphatically beyond Jon McLaughlin into the top corner.
The goal cranked the atmosphere up a couple of notches and the home players responded in turn. Kieran Tierney flashed a shot from distance wide of the post a short time later as Celtic drove forward in numbers.
Dembele should really have doubled the advantage on 20 minutes when an attempted tackle by Jozo Simunovic landed fortuitously for the Frenchman inside the penalty box. With Hearts appealing in vain for offside, the striker could only hit his finish straight at the keeper.
He soon atoned for that miss. Taking in a short pass from James Forrest, he slipped Dedryck Boyata inside the penalty area. The Belgian had stayed in attack following an initial clearance from a set-piece and the centre-half showed the poise of a striker to slide his low finish underneath the sprawling McLaughlin.
Dembele was frustrated in his attempts once again when he found himself denied by a last-ditch tackle from Connor Randall, but Hearts couldn’t keep the attacker at bay for much longer. After Tierney had turned Randall inside-out on the left wing, the full-back delivered a side-footed cross which Dembele was able to turn home from close range.
Things went from bad to worse for Levein’s men just before the half as Harry Cochrane was forced off with a shoulder injury. The youngster was replaced by Prince Buaben and he was joined on the park for the restart by Danny Amankwaa as the away side sought to earn some respectability out of the contest.
The first 15 minutes of the second period were a bit of a non-event as Celtic stroked the ball around at half-pace. Shifting through the gears once more they were able to force three great opportunities in the space of five minutes. Dembele was first up, curling a shot from the edge of the area just over when he could have advanced on the goalkeeper. He then turned provider, once again helping Edouard to burst through one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Where the PSG loanee had previously shown great composure, this time he was only able to lift his shot right at McLaughlin. Two minutes later, he found misfortune in the six-yard area as his attempt at close-range finish was blocked and scrambled clear by the away defence.
Almost out of nothing, Hearts got themselves on the scoresheet. Having looked on the verge of completely losing his head in the first half, Lafferty was given a reprieve by his manager and repaid him with a fine finish into the bottom corner.