HAD Hearts been awarded their second-minute goal, the context of this game would certainly have been different.
Whether the final outcome would have changed is highly unlikely. Celtic were simply untouchable and, on this evidence, will not be stopped in their pursuit of the Scottish Premier League title.
Neil Lennon labelled his team’s performance “devastating” while acknowledging the key players Hearts were missing on the night, such as Marian Kello, David Templeton and Ian Black. However, those three could have played and Celtic would still not have been halted.
Hearts rightly harboured a sense of injustice after Stephen Elliott’s second minute header clearly bounced over the goal line with no goal given. Thereafter, they were simply swatted aside by a rampant Celtic side on their way to a record 16th consecutive victory in all competitions. It was their 13th in succession in the league.
Goals from Scott Brown, Victor Wanyama and Joe Ledley had the visitors 3-0 ahead at half-time, with Gary Hooper completing the scoring after the interval.
Paulo Sergio accepted responsibility for the defeat, the Hearts manager perhaps reflecting on the unusual 3-4-3 formation he employed. It did not work, there was no disguising it, but Celtic gave the impression that nothing would have stifled them in any case. The first half in particular was a display no team in Scotland could have lived with.
“What do you want me to say? I’m just going to say we have been very unlucky in the last three games,” said Sergio. “The referee hasn’t seen the goal today. We didn’t get a penalty in Inverness or on Sunday (against St Johnstone). At the moment, we have no luck it seems. I don’t want to take any credit off Celtic’s win. They are a strong team. I have to remember we had a strong start, our strategy worked, we scored, and Celtic got lucky because only the referee hasn’t seen a goal.
“My players lost focus and concentration and Celtic scored. We tried to get back into the game and Celtic scored again, Samaras took a bad touch but it worked. We push harder and lost another counter-attack goal. Then it’s 3-0 and the game is over. Celtic are a strong team. We tried to change but the heads went down. That should not happen. After the first ten minutes of the second half I decided to rest some players and give others more minutes to keep them sharp, because it was too easy for Celtic.”
Injury denied Hearts the services of Templeton and suspension precluded Black, while Rudi Skacel was relegated to the substitutes’ bench. Kello’s exclusion continued, with Danny Grainger, Andy Driver and Mehdi Taouil returning to the starting line-up.
As expected, the game started at a frantic pace. Hearts had the ball over the line inside two minutes when Driver’s corner was redirected across goal by Andy Webster for Elliott to nod goalwards. The ball struck Ledley and bounced down behind the line and up before Celtic’s goalkeeper, Fraser Forster, clawed it away. Television pictures proved the ball crossed the line but Andy Tait, the Main Stand assistant referee, did not raise his flag to signal a goal.
Sergio felt the ball struck Ledley on the arm and he was therefore expecting a penalty if the goal was not to be awarded. “I’ve seen the pictures so I know it was a goal, but I could only see the ball bounce and my players celebrate. I saw a handball, a penalty, but nothing happened.”
It took just 33 seconds for Celtic to ruthlessly exploit Hearts’ misfortune. Sergio and his technical team were still protesting about the goal they were denied when James Forrest’s cross rebounded off Georgios Samaras into Brown’s path, and the Scotland midfielder produced an emphatic first-time finish beyond Jamie MacDonald.
Before 20 minutes had passed, Celtic had doubled their advantage. Charlie Mulgrew’s corner was cleared by Marius Zaliukas, returned by Forrest and, after a ricochet, Wanyama reacted first to blast the ball high into the Hearts net. There might have been a third when Zaliukas scuffed Mulgrew’s cross and the ball bounced perilously close to the goal before dropping behind for a corner.
At that stage Celtic were totally dominant and it was no surprise when they did score for a third time on 31 minutes. Not for the first time this season, Zaliukas was to blame for conceding possession which led to a goal being lost. He gifted the ball to Brown under no pressure, the midfielder fed Hooper and eventually the ball reached Samaras. The Greek forward evaded Ryan McGowan’s challenge to clip a precise cross to the back post where Ledley headed into an empty net.
The second half began with Hearts looking more purposeful, however Ledley’s shot rebounded off the post and struck Grainger before going behind on the hour mark. The resultant corner was delivered by Mulgrew, headed downwards by Wanyama and converted by Hooper from close range.
Four-nil did not flatter Celtic and MacDonald prevented a fifth with an impressive save from Samaras’ long-range drive. The visitors saw out the game comfortably under very little pressure from Hearts, who were resigned to being second best on the night.
“We could have scored the early goal and lost 6-1,” admitted Sergio. “I can’t say we would win if the goal was allowed but you have to agree the game is different and harder for Celtic if they are behind. My goalie made only one save but they scored four, that is how a big team plays. I have to say, for everybody, this defeat is my responsibility.”
Lennon felt last night’s display was Celtic’s finest at Tynecastle during his tenure. “It was probably the best in my time as manager,” he said. “I thought we were devastating, powerful, quick on the counter-attack and the intensity and quality of the play was exceptional. There is a long way to go but the players are growing and that was a big test for us. I feel for Hearts a bit because they lost some big players before the game, but they caught us on a good night.”