Seven weeks ago Hearts came away from Fir Park five points clear at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership after a fifth consecutive league win.
That 1-0 success against Motherwell was achieved by a goal scored by Steven Naismith and set up by the determination of Uche Ikpeazu. Equally crucial was a commanding defensive display from deputy captain John Souttar. The previous night, title favourites and perennial champions Celtic had stuttered to a goalless draw away to struggling St Mirren amid talk of behind-the-scenes unrest. Hearts supporters were genuinely starting to believe.
For the unlikely title dream to become reality, however, it was widely accepted that at least two key factors would have to remain in Hearts’ favour. Firstly, they would need to keep their main players free of injury for the majority of the campaign, and secondly, but just as crucially, Celtic’s form dip would have to be a sustained one. Neither scenario has been maintained.
In the intervening period, Souttar, Ikpeazu and Naismith have all joined captain Christophe Berra on the long-term injury list while Celtic have simultaneously rediscovered their mojo and banished their early-season concerns. It all culminated in a gruesome Saturday afternoon in Glasgow’s drizzly east end for Craig Levein’s team as the champions romped to a sixth domestic victory on the spin. Their five-goal stroll meant they have scored a whopping 23 times in their last five games against Scottish opponents, with eight of those goals coming against Hearts.
By contrast, the JTs have failed to find the net in their past three games, albeit two of those have been against Celtic. The cumulative effect of the injuries, particularly those to Naismith and Ikpeazu, the two men who gave them a high-quality edge in attack, is clearly taking a toll on their ability to sustain their early-season surge.
Hearts remain a point clear at the top, but it seems only a matter of time before Celtic, with a game in hand, regain full control of the title race.
On Saturday, they were far superior to Hearts. While Levein was admirably honest in carrying the can for the defeat, conceding that he had set the team up too defensively, Celtic, in this scintillating form, would have blitzed any Scottish opponent, no matter how they had played. There was a sense of what may come when Odsonne Edouard nonchalantly pinged Celtic’s opener in off the bar from the angle of the box.
This goal was not down to formations or tactical approaches, it was simply a mark of the quality that a £9 million centre-forward from Paris Saint-Germain can bring to the party.
Hearts, by contrast, were operating with a 36-year-old former St Johnstone striker (Steven MacLean) and a largely unheralded winger from Inverness Caledonian Thistle (Jake Mulraney) in their attack, against a centre-back (Dedryck Boyata) who played all three group matches for eventual semi-finalists Belgium at the World Cup in the summer.
Following the 18th-minute deadlock-breaker, there were another two first-half goals from Filip Benkovic and Edouard as Hearts barely laid a glove on the champions.
“The manager’s an idiot,” was Levein’s remarkably candid verdict on a cautious first-half approach which did nothing to stop Celtic seizing command. Although Hearts played with more intent after the break, any half-chances they had generally materialised via complacency from the hosts.
James Forrest and Ryan Christie added further goals either side of a brief flurry from Hearts in which MacLean saw a close-range shot touched wide by Craig Gordon and substitute Ben Garuccio – arguably the visitors’ most productive player – smacked the base of the post with a 25-yard strike. It was a chastening day for the Premiership leaders as they suffered their second league defeat of the season, and their second setback in Glasgow in the space of a month, both of which have involved a 3-0 half-time deficit.
It is worth noting, however, that Hearts have just emerged from a challenging six-game sequence in which the opponents were Rangers, Aberdeen, Dundee, Celtic, Hibs, Celtic. The general sentiment at the start of October was “let’s see where Hearts are at the end of this run”. Top of the league is the answer to that, a scenario every supporter would have gladly accepted. While it is hard to see them remaining there much longer with Celtic now in such rampant form, Hearts still have a chance to finish in a high position.
With Rangers, Aberdeen and Hibs all struggling to ignite, there is a clear chance to gun for second place. A less-demanding run of fixtures plus the prospective return of Naismith and Berra next month and the eagerly-awaited January arrival of David Vanecek ensures reason for optimism prevails in the aftermath of Hearts’ most demoralising week of the season.