Celtic are Ladbrokes Premiership champions once again after hammering Hearts at Tynecastle. Craig Fowler gives his take on the emphatic victory
Celtic don’t need Dembele or Griffiths to dominate
In prior games where Celtic have been missing both Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths, manager Brendan Rodgers opted for his usual 4-2-3-1 formation and selected either Scott Sinclair and Patrick Roberts as the central striker. Though Celtic would ultimately win (obviously) it never quite worked the way he envisioned. So, for this clash, he decided to switch to a 3-5-2 system and used both wide midfielders in attack.
Sinclair and Roberts are not a typical centre-forward partnership, but the duo tore through Hearts time and again en route to sealing Celtic’s sixth consecutive title. What they perhaps lacked in physical presence, they made up with flawless technique on the ball and some terrific movement. Sinclair, in particular, bamboozled the opposing defence throughout the match.
Ironically, he did the opposite of what he tends to do when he starts on the left. Out wide he’ll often look to drift inside; now inside, he tended to drift wide. When he would, Callum McGregor would push up into the central area, and Hearts were just left with too many moving targets to lock-in on.
While there would be a chasm between the sides at full-time, in the first 30 minutes Sinclair was the difference. He put Celtic in a commanding 2-0 lead, including a thunderous finish for the opening goal, and deservedly picked up the match ball with a late penalty - which he won.
There’s too much talent for Celtic to have “off-days”
Hearts would have went into this fixture thinking if they could stop Stuart Armstrong from dominating the centre of the park, stop Scott Brown from dictating play, keep Kieran Tierney and Sinclair quiet, then they would have had a good chance. Unfortunately for them, not only is that too much to do at once, it still leaves them praying the others in Celtic’s starting XI play below their normal level. There’s too much talent playing at peak confidence to expect that.
The first three mentioned didn’t have their best games - though Armstrong, typically in the form he’s on, still scored - but Sinclair was on fire, Roberts made two goals and scored another, while the likes of McGregor and James Forrest troubled Hearts from start to the finish. Then there’s the back three. They all had calm and collected performances, with Craig Gordon able to bail them out whenever a Hearts attacker did slip through.
This team is strong throughout the line-up and, if they want it, an undefeated season is theirs to discard.
Cathro has to share blame for Hearts hammering
Those wishes to defend Cathro for Hearts’ defeat will point to the opening 24 minutes, prior to Sinclair’s opener. The hosts pressed Celtic high up the park, won the ball back in good areas and created two or three good opportunities to open the scoring.
Had they done so, it’s likely we would have seen a different Hearts for the rest of the match. This is a team fueled only by confidence, and they completely fall to bits whenever they are faced with adversity. We already knew this. There’s not much Cathro can do about that, at least not in the present. The current team is the only one he’s got until the end of the season - one incapable of fighting back when they’re knocked down.
However, another problem with the current Hearts XI is the defence, especially without veteran organiser Aaron Hughes. A foursome of Andraz Struna, Tasos Avlonitis, Krystian Nowak and Leonard Sowah just doesn’t cut it. They were, to a man, dreadful. But we already knew they weren’t a strong unit. Why offer them very little in the way of protection?
Hearts got off to their great start by having Perry Kitchen, Don Cowie and Jamie Walker pushing forward to pressure the Celtic defence along with strikers Esmael Goncalves and Bjorn Johnsen. It was a ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ approach. When Celtic managed to beat the press they had tons of space to exploit. This was highlighted by the second goal which was a near carbon copy of an earlier move that saw Callum McGregor flagged for being marginally offside.
As soon as Hearts fell behind and started to chase the game they were always likely to suffer a real hammering, and so it proved. The 5-0 loss was their worst home defeat in league football since 1973.
Callum McGregor has chance to shine
The summer will likely be a period of uncertainty for the Celtic midfielder. Brendan Rodgers has already expressed his desire to bring in another centre-midfielder and the expected rise of Eboue Kouassi could knock McGregor far down the Celtic Park pecking order. Therefore, it’s up to him to really stake his place for a regular starting spot in the team next season with what time there is left of this one.
He’s now the preferred over Nir Bitton to complete the midfield trifecta alongside Armstrong and Brown, and with good reason. McGregor’s energetic style just suits Rodgers’ system so much more than the Israeli’s lackadaisical approach.
Rodgers plans to rest some of his Scottish internationals between now and the end of the season, knowing full well they’ll be called up to the Scotland squad for the 10 June clash with England, thereby interrupting their rest period before Celtic have another crack at the Champions League.
McGregor is not in Strachan’s plans, for the meantime, and has logged fewer miles on the clock this season than his team-mates. Therefore, he’ll get his chance to show his worth and if he continues to put in the sort of performance he showed against Hearts, then he’s got every chance of remaining in Rodgers’ thoughts for next season.
Hearts made a deal with the devil
It’s now 18 games in all competitions where Hearts have failed to defeat Celtic, the longest run by any of the two sides in the history of the fixture. And with Celtic bidding to remain invincible and Hearts continuing to flounder, it’ll likely hit 19 when the two sides meet post-split at Celtic Park.
The last time Hearts defeated Celtic was back in the 2012 Scottish Cup final, where Craig Beattie’s injury-time penalty booked the Tynecastle side a place in the final against rivals Hibs. Considering what followed, it would seem a rogue Jambo offered up future happiness against Celtic in favour of getting the chance to win an all-Edinburgh final. With what we know now, was it worth it?
Yes... yes it definitely was.