REMEMBER when Celtic versus Hearts used to be one of Scottish football's more evenly fought and absorbing contests?
You should, because it was only nine months ago. But since April, when the Tynecastle club knocked Celtic out of the William Hill Scottish Cup at the semi-final stage, the fortunes of the two clubs have gone in opposite directions.
While the Parkhead side have been mixing it with the best teams in the world, Hearts have had to contend with registration embargoes and the wholesale restructuring of their playing squad. Consequently, in the last four meetings between the teams – including yesterday – the Parkhead club have prevailed by an aggregate of 14:1 and this was as much of a mismatch as any in this series. Having scored eight of them, no-one will be happier to see the back of Gary Hooper than the Tynecastle side should he move to the Barclays Premier League.
Indeed, the outcome of this match seemed predestined within 90 seconds, as the applause was still settling following a minute's appreciation for Sean Fallon, the club's player, captain, manager and assistant, who died on Friday. While John McGlynn's makeshift starting XI included three teenagers and two 21-year-olds, including Danny Wilson on-loan from Liverpool, Celtic looked refreshed after their Spanish siesta and the consensus was this was their best domestic home showing of the season.
In addition to Norwich City's pursuit of Hooper, the only source of worry for the home fans afterwards was the no show of Fraser Forster with a neck problem and the groin and rib problems suffered by Adam Matthews and Kris Commons.
"The players wanted to give Sean a good send-off," said Lennon. "He would have been happy with that. There are a few bumps and bruises so we'll see how they are for Tuesday, but in the main I am delighted. Kris has a cartilage problem between the ribs and was finding it increasingly sore as the game wore on. Adam came off with a slight groin strain so we will monitor him. Fraser has gone for a scan and we are waiting for the results. It is nothing serious, but he could be a doubt for Tuesday as well."
Matthews was the architect of the opening goal. He got the rub of the green with a ricochet from Mehdi Taouil to pull a tantalising ball across goal, where Hooper lunged in to finish. Ten minutes later and the match was effectively over, courtesy of a second Celtic goal which once again materialised down Kevin McHattie's side. Commons spun beyond the youngster, and got the benefit of the doubt with a tug, before turning Wilson inside then out and forcing Jamie MacDonald to palm out his low shot. Georgios Samaras gobbled up the rebound.
You felt the home side could have scored at will at times during that opening period, yet Charlie Mulgrew, Commons and Joe Ledley all spurned opportunities. The pattern continued into the second half, with Hooper's celebrations cut short by an offside flag on one occasion.
Only Hearts substitute Jamie Walker posed any real threat to the Celtic rearguard. That was until a Hearts goal arrived from nowhere, Jason Holt firing in a shot which took a deflection off Mikael Lustig to somehow sneak into Lukasz Zaluska's bottom corner. Any impression of a contest was false.
Celtic went through the gears and got their rewards when a foray down the right by Scott Brown let Hooper sweep the ball in from an angle. Celtic had time to squeeze in another, Emilio Izaguirre's cross being missed by Hooper before Lassad Nouioui met it on the bounce and steered it into the top corner.
"In the first half we couldn't get anywhere near Celtic," said McGlynn. "They have to be ready to go from 3 o'clock onwards, not when they've gone a goal down. It was a harsh lesson for the young lads, but they have to learn."