Celtic 5 - 0 Hearts: Brendan Rodgers' men move within point of the top
Brendan Rodgers’ men have well and truly left the uncertainty of the early weeks of this campaign behind them. They have scored 21 goals in those five league wins, hitting a vein of form which suggests they are now firmly on the march towards an eighth successive title triumph.
Odsonne Edouard led the charge for Celtic, the French striker scoring twice to take his tally for the season to 11 - seven of them in his last seven appearances. Filip Benkovic, James Forrest and Ryan Christie were also on target against a Hearts side unable to offer any meaningful resistance.
It was a fluent and dominant Celtic performance from start to finish. Rodgers unsurprisingly fielded an unchanged line-up from the 5-0 midweek rout of Dundee and his players simply carried on where they had left off at Dens Park.
Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal was forced into his first save of the afternoon after just four minutes, getting down to keep out Christie’s low shot, setting the tone for a persistent flow of attacking intent towards the visitors’ goal.
Christie, currently seizing his opportunity to nail down a regular place in the Celtic side, threatened again when he got on the end of Kieran Tierney’s cross to force another save from Zlamal, then saw another decent effort from 20 yards deflected narrowly wide.
Levein had made four changes to his side after Wednesday’s goalless Edinburgh derby - Demetri Mitchell, Harry Cochrane, Jake Mulraney and Steven MacLean coming into the starting line-up at the expense of Ben Garuccio, Olly Lee, Oliver Bozanic and Callumn Morrison.
But what was clearly intended to be a policy of containment from Hearts was never likely to succeed. The breakthrough arrived in the 18th minute with a sumptuous strike from Edouard. Receiving the ball from Scott Sinclair, he stepped neatly away from Peter Haring and unleashed a right foot shot from the edge of the penalty area which beat Zlamal via the underside of the crossbar.
Celtic were relentless and Zlamal made another smart save three minutes later when he dived to his right to divert a Tierney shot wide.
The Czech ‘keeper was left helpless again, however, when Celtic doubled their lead in the 26th minute. It was a sweet moment for Benkovic as the on-loan Leicester City defender claimed his first goal for Celtic. The big Croatian easily outjumped Jimmy Dunne to power home a close range header from Callum McGregor’s corner.
Hearts were under siege and it was through luck than judgement that Michael Smith was able to block Edouard’s header from a Mikael Lustig cross. The striker’s second goal of the afternoon was merely delayed as he made it 3-0 six minutes before the interval.
When Tierney drilled over a low cross from the left, Edouard was quickest to react as he got in ahead of Dunne and forced a close range shot beyond Zlamal.
With Zlamal then forced to make a good stop to keep out a stinging shot from Tom Rogic, the half-time whistle came as a relief to the beleaguered Hearts players.
With Garuccio replacing Mitchell at the start of the second half, Levein’s looked more robust and competitive for a spell. That may also have been a consequence of Celtic briefly allowing the tempo of their play to drop.
Craig Gordon and Dedryck Boyata seemed to allow boredom to get the better of them with a couple of moments of poor communication between the Celtic ‘keeper and central defender which gave Hearts the sniff of pulling a goal back. Gordon had to sprint off his line to prevent MacLean taking advantage of one of the bouts of slackness.
Celtic were soon back in the ascendancy and operating on full power again when they scored their fourth goal in the 65th minute. Edouard was the provider this time, display poise and fine footwork to slip a pass to Forrest who swept a firm right foot shot beyond Zlamal’s right hand into the corner of the net.
Garuccio almost snatched a moment of consolation for Hearts when his shot smacked back off Gordon’s left hand post but it was Celtic who had the last word, Christie scoring for the third game in a row when he confidently converted an 89th minute penalty after Forrest was felled by substitute Craig Wighton.