Pace and clinical finishing in the final third was the pivotal factor in a convincing home win. Hearts fell behind after only three minutes and were always toiling the get back into the game thereafter. Kyle Lafferty did reduce the deficit midway through the second period with an impressive 20-yard finish, but by then Celtic were uncatchable.
The Edinburgh club remain the only side to beat Celtic domestically since Brendan Rodgers became manager in summer 2016. However, there was little chance of a second defeat on this occasion. Hearts had built up an impressive unbeaten run having not lost since early November – a sequence which included eight successive clean sheets before Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Motherwell. The hosts were simply too strong on the night as they stretched their lead at the top of the Premiership to 14 points ahead of Rangers.
Both managers had to put potential transfer business aside for this fixture just over 24 hours before the January window closed. Celtic were hunting a new goalkeeper with Craig Gordon out for 12 weeks through injury. Leigh Griffiths is also sidelined for a month and Scott Sinclair’s appearance on the substitutes’ bench would have given Hearts even more confidence prior to kick-off. Rodgers did secure winger Charly Musonda on loan from Chelsea and he started beside Sinclair on the bench.
The visiting manager, Craig Levein, made five changes from Saturday. The most notable was Lafferty’s return to the starting line-up after three games out through suspension. His last competitive outing was a month ago at Aberdeen but he led the forward line with Steven Naismth rested due to a niggling injury.
Icy wind and rain made for inclement weather at Parkhead and, after routing Celtic 4-0 in Edinburgh last month, Hearts knew their hosts would be out for revenge. That result ended Rodgers’ team’s record 69-game unbeaten domestic run so there was plenty intensity and intrigue surrounding this one.
Celtic required less than three minutes to signal their intent. Dembele shielded the ball from Christophe Berra and Edouard seized control. He drove in behind a square-looking Hearts defence and, upon entering the penalty area, finished high to goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin’s right with his left foot.
Dembele ought to have doubled the advantage on 20 minutes when the ball ricocheted towards him following Kouassi Eboue’s tackle on Harry Cochrane. The Frenchman took a touch and attempted to guide the ball past the advancing McLaughlin with his left foot, however the keeper reacted quickly to palm the ball away.
Celtic’s second did arrive moments later. Again Dembele was heavily involved. He controlled James Forrest’s header and slipped a pass through to Dedryck Boyata. The defender was in unfamiliar territory but calmly stroked the ball through McLaughlin’s legs and into the net from the corner of the six-yard box.
Dembele deservedly etched his own name on the scoresheet nine minutes from the interval. He met Kieran Tierney’s cross on the run and guided it home from close range to end the match as a contest.
Hearts looked overwhelmed and struggled to contain the powerful home attack. Levein chose to replace the injured 16-year-old Cochrane with Prince Buaben, returning from a month-long injury absence. At the break, recent signing Danny Amankwaa took over from Ross Callachan. The alterations helped the visitors perform better during the second 45 minutes, although they still had to content with periods of concerted pressure
Musonda made his debut in green and white as a 61st-minute replacement for Forrest to a deafening reception. Only after Edouard passed up a glorious opportunity to claim his second goal of the evening. A sharp turn saw Dembele thread a weighted ball through for his compatriot to gallop in behind the Hearts defence, but his shot was repelled by McLaughlin around 18 yards out.
Musonda’s backheel to Kristoffer Ajer led to another chance for Edouard but Hearts managed to scramble the ball clear from their six-yard area. They then forced their way forward to prise a consolation goal. Arnaud Djoum tackled Brown in midfield and in the process prodded the ball through to Lafferty. The striker made space to turn and angle a precise finish beyond Dorus de Vries and into the corner of the net. He quickly retrieved the ball hoping that the deficit could be cut further.
Lafferty trudged off 13 minutes from the end looking exhausted after his elongated winter break. Naismith took his place to much derision from the home support, however Hearts couldn’t muster another goal to set up an exciting finish. In the end, it was a relatively straightforward victory for Rodgers and his players. But for late saves by McLaughlin from Dembele and substitute Scott Sinclair, it might have been more.
Celtic: De Vries; Ajer, Boyata, Simunovic, Tierney; Brown, Kouassi; Forrest (Musonda 61), Ntcham, Edouard (McGregor 83); Dembele (Sinclair 70). Unused subs: Doohan, Gamboa, Miller, Bitton.
Hearts: McLaughlin; Randall, Souttar, Berra, Mitchell; Cowie, Callachan (Amankwaa 46), Djoum, Cochrane (Buaben 38), Milinkovic; Lafferty (Naismith 77). Unused subs: Hamilton, Hughes, M Smith, Moore.
Referee: C Thomson.