The enticing prospect of a sustained and multi-faceted Premiership title race this season hasn’t quite been completely blown away by the defending champions.
As ominous as Celtic’s current domestic form is for the rest of the pack, the fact that only eight points cover the top eight teams in the table means there yet remains scope for plenty of competitive intrigue at the summit.
But as statements of intent go from a club with their sights firmly fixed on an eighth successive title triumph, they don’t come much more compelling than the one delivered by Brendan Rodgers’ side on Saturday.
The only consolation for Hearts and their supporters as they headed back along the M8 after being on the wrong end of an almost wholly one-sided rout was that they remained at the top of the Premiership pile.
Their lead is down to just one point over Celtic, who have a game in hand and have moved into top gear on the home front. Since their 2-1 loss at Kilmarnock on 23 September, they have racked up seven consecutive wins in domestic fixtures, scoring 25 goals in the process.
By his own admission, Hearts manager Craig Levein was culpable for the latest free-flowing romp enjoyed by Celtic. Describing himself as an “idiot” and an “ass” for adopting a policy of containment which seemed to tactically confuse his players, Levein absolved them of any blame and expressed confidence they will regain positive momentum in the Premiership when they face Kilmarnock at Tynecastle next Saturday.
The next few weeks will prove informative as to whether Hearts were over-achieving in the opening phase of the season or whether they have the quality and depth of squad necessary to maintain the consistency required to stick around at the business end of the table.
According to attacking midfielder Sean Clare, who endured a difficult shift in the set-up deployed by Levein at Celtic Park, the Gorgie side retain belief they can extend a title challenge.
“It is just one game and we are still in amongst it at the top,” said Clare. “It is still a long season left and I wouldn’t say that is our bubble burst. Celtic will beat other teams by big scores but this result doesn’t change anything as far as we’re concerned.
“We have definitely shown bits in the games against Celtic to show we can compete with them. Not as much this time, of course, but in the other games we showed we can compete. We are still top of the league. We just need to go and win our games and everything else will take care of itself.”
Clare also stressed that the Hearts players have to share in the responsibility for their defeat, despite Levein’s willingness to shoulder the blame.
“We are a team at the end of the day and it can’t all be on him,” said the former Sheffield Wednesday man. “We had tactics to start with and we didn’t execute them well enough in the first half, as a team and as a unit. We lost some sloppy goals and gave ourselves a big challenge to come out in the second half. We left ourselves with too much to do. We all have to take it.”
A rampant first half from Celtic saw them forge a 3-0 lead. Odsonne Edouard scored twice, a thunderous strike off the underside of the crossbar and a sharp close-range finish either side of on-loan Leicester City defender Filip Benkovic’s first goal for the club when he headed in a corner from the excellent Callum McGregor.
Hearts managed to stem the tide a little after the break but Celtic remained in control. James Forrest’s clever finish from an Edouard assist made it 4-0 before Ryan Christie’s late penalty delivered the coup de grace.
“It is a sore one for us and no one enjoys losing like that,” admitted Clare. “We can take the fact that Celtic are a good side out of it but no one enjoys losing like that to anyone. We just have to put it behind us and go again. We have another game in a week and then the international break, so we just have to keep at it and play the way that has got us to where we are in the table just now.”