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Celtic 4 Hearts 1: Home fans milk opposition's precarious condition to add insult to injury

IN any match at Parkhead, the Celtic support sings about their own team and whatever they choose to call Rangers, but for once their repertoire included a few cruel tunes aimed specifically at Hearts.

Celtic's scoring started with Gary Hooper, but he may not end the season at the club. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
Celtic's scoring started with Gary Hooper, but he may not end the season at the club. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

They clearly have developed an appetite for rivals being faced by financial ruin, such were the taunts – and some impressive and imaginative banners – aimed at the Edinburgh club throughout this easy win. There was an acknowledgement of Hearts but no respect for them. On the pitch, the Celtic team had another way of withholding mercy.

Hearts' confused defending often left them badly exposed but this was, above all, a sharp and penetrating performance from Celtic. A young Hearts team had no chance of coping with them. The champions' eighth win in nine games maintained their nine-point advantage at the top of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League and suggested that the two-week winter break has been to their advantage. Teams often came back looking sluggish when the division took a breather in the past but Celtic were crisp and bright in their 36th competitive match of the season.

"The break definitely helped freshen us up," said Adam Matthews, whose fine contribution at right-back was eclipsed only by those of Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper. "You could see that from the first whistle as we started really well. After the break we maybe took our foot from the pedal and lost a sloppy goal, but we showed our quality at the end and could have won by more than 4-1."

Hooper will leave. Perhaps in the remaining 11 days of this transfer window – Norwich City are expected to bid £7m, having failed with £5m – or in the summer. He has improved too much for Celtic to have much hope of keeping him longer than that. His contributions should be savoured while he remains. His two goals were unspectacular yet excellent, finishing Matthews' cross after 90 seconds and then converting a Scott Brown pass with absolute certainty near the end.

Those now count among the 20 goals he has scored this season but there are other attributes to admire in his play. There was one cross from Georgios Samaras which he instantly laid off to Joe Ledley, whose volley forced a good save. The technique and awareness were both excellent and the decision-making was unselfish.

Samaras had scored the second goal after Kris Commons had made a mess of Danny Wilson, but Hooper outclassed him.

"When he came to the club he was just seen as a goalscorer," Matthews said. "But, especially this season, he's progressed his game far more than that. He drops into pockets and gets us playing. He's quality as a player and as a goalscorer, so when you get someone like him in the box you are going to get goals. He's worth way more than £5m. He proved again that he is a quality player and a great asset to the team. We don't want to sell him. He's enjoying it here and I think he wants to stay."

Somehow Hearts had not been put away by midway through the second half, so when Jason Holt burrowed through and hit a shot past Lukasz Zaluska, with the help of a big deflection off Mikael Lustig, there was a frisson of doubt around Parkhead. An equaliser seemed somehow unthinkable, even if the scoreline was sufficiently precarious to coax Neil Lennon out of his dugout to gee up his men.

Eventually they picked it up again and finished with two late goals to complement their two at the start. Hooper scored again five minutes from time, then Lassad Nouioui added the fourth.

"We have gelled really well as a team this season and shown that in our games," said Matthews. "We have played more games than anyone else in the league and we're still in the four competitions we started. That shows how much of a team we are."

Fraser Forster, Commons and Matthews all had injuries which kept them out of, or shortened their involvement in, the Hearts game but Lennon has no major worries ahead of tomorrow's home game against Dundee United or the Champions League first leg against Juventus inching closer on the fixture list, in just over a fortnight.

Wanyama, an enigmatic and strolling presence, commanded the midfield against a Hearts team without the experience or quality to compete. The entire back four played like strangers at Parkhead. Danny Wilson has not played nearly enough football recently and on his Hearts debut it showed. An understanding with Andy Webster will hopefully develop but Celtic frequently cut through them with one clinical pass, or found far too much room behind them on the wings. Hearts have won only one away game in the league all season and have managed only two wins in their past nine games.

All the trouble a section of the Celtic support went to in creating banners and songs about them essentially acknowledged that over the years Hearts have had teams which made an impression on them. This time they were too inferior to leave a mark.

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