Celtic’s status as the dominant team of Scottish football remains irrefutable; Brendan Rodgers’ side are on course to claim a seventh successive Premiership title after opening up an 11-point lead at the summit over Rangers and Aberdeen.
Even after masterminding a stunning 4-0 success over the Glasgow club to end their record-breaking 69-game unbeaten run, Hearts manager Craig Levein concedes they are still the best team by a “fair margin”.
However, Levein, pictured inset, who takes his side to Parkhead tonight, believes the rest of the top-flight now has a greater understanding of how to counter the yawning financial chasm.
Celtic’s march towards the chequered flag this season has encountered more bumps, giving a modicum of hope to those who are keen to see a more competitive league.
They have already dropped 15 points this season compared to the eight last term.
“They are still the best team in the league by a fair margin,” said Levein, whose side are uneaten in 12 games. “They have the best players and the biggest budget.
“I think managers are looking at it and saying: ‘Okay, lets put it to one side that they’ve spent the most money and you’ve got the best players, how do we compete?’
“Partick Thistle did a decent job and Hibs have done a good job against them, Rangers too.
“Managers are looking at them and trying to work out what’s the best approach.
“There are a lot of really good managers in this league so they’re going to try to find ways of winning.
“Celtic brought a lot of players in last season who people didn’t know particularly well, guys like Scott Sinclair arrived and he was on fire.
“They’ve got a lot of really good players, [Moussa] Dembele came in and I think it does take time to work out what the best thing to do is; to get to know their players and their system and how they’re going to approach the match – and to try and come up with something that can give you a chance of winning the game.”
One thing for sure is that Celtic will be keen to make amends for the heavy 17 December defeat Hearts inflicted at Tynecastle. “I don’t know if revenge is the right word, but they might have a point to prove,” reasoned Levein.
“They might be hurting that they lost their run to us and they might have a point to prove. But Brendan has got them very quickly back on track after that game.
“They have been on a brilliant run. People say they haven’t been playing great, but they are still picking up points.
“They are still doing really, really well. Historically, going through to Celtic Park has been tough for us and I don’t expect this to be any different.”
Hearts midfielder Ross Callachan started the victory over Celtic as Harry Cochrane and Kyle Lafferty strikes and a David Milinkovic brace left the visitors shell-shocked.
The 24-year-old had been in confident mood ahead of that game, even if his mother, Sam, did not share his optimism.
“I actually had a funny feeling we could do something that day,” recalled the former Raith Rovers player. “I even said to my mum before the game that I thought we would win and she just laughed at me. She’s my biggest fan and usually agrees with anything I say but not that day.
“But with the gameplan we had that day and the way the game started we felt they were there for the taking and when we went 2-0 up, I thought we were cruising. They are so good, it was only when it went 4-0 that we knew we’d done it.
“I never thought I’d be part of the team that ended Celtic’s invincible run so it was great to be part of the occasion.”
As a Raith player, Callachan played the part of a starstruck teenager as the visitors were beaten 4-1 in a League Cup clash in 2012.
With Hearts, he will travel along the M8 with expectation rather than hope.
“I’ve played at Celtic Park once with Raith Rovers. I came on as a substitute for the last 20 minutes and we lost 4-1.
“I managed to get Joe Ledley’s top after the match and that sits in my house as a reminder.
“This is a different trip for me personally – that was more of an experience as we expected to lose.”