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stokes 'a menace'

Celtic cut down Hearts' SPL challenge last night with a four-goal salute led by Anthony Stokes.

The on-form striker took his SPL tally to 11 -- one goal more than strike partner Gary Hooper.

Stokes curled in a perfect free-kick in the 53rd minute then tapped the ball into the empty net in the 71st minute after Hooper had raced clear of the visitors' offside trap.

James Forrest and Paddy McCourt scored either side of Stokes' double and Neil Lennon was delighted by the way that the former Sunderland striker led the line.

"Stokes' play in the last couple of games has shown why we signed him," the Celtic boss stated. "He's a constant menace, I didn't fancy him at the free kick but that shows his confidence. Our front two were a handful. Hooper is a predator and Stokes plays on the shoulder of people, and they combined perfectly for our third goal.

"The free kick was a wonderful goal. He hasn't shown a lot of that side of his game but we know he has it in him.

"To go out and do it on a matchday says a lot -- he's become a very important player for us."


Celtic's all round play was breathtaking at times as makeshift centre-half Charlie Mulgrew played like a veteran alongside Thomas Rogne.

Emilio Izaguirre never stopped running up and down the left flank and Biram Kayal turned in a commanding display of controlled aggression in the middle of the park before being substituted to a standing ovation from the Parkhead crowd.

The build-up to the match had concentrated on Hearts and hopes that this season's title run-in could be a three-horse race.

By the final whistle, however, the Edinburgh side looked demoralised as they stared at a 10-point gap between themselves and Celtic.

Manager Jim Jefferies said his side's performance was a shambles.

Celtic face a vital month on three fronts but, after surviving through last month when their credentials were on the line, Lennon is delighted about the way that the new year is shaping up after convincing wins over Rangers and Hearts.

"It's been coming," the Celtic boss admitted. "The level of play in recent weeks has been good, we just haven't been putting teams away.


"It came together tonight. I thought we were absolutely brilliant."

The only downside of the night was a hamstring injury to James Forrest, but McCourt proved to be an able replacement.

On the transfer front, Celtic are in pole position to sign Derby County winger Kris Commons, who is also interesting Rangers.

Commons is available on a Bosman deal at the end of the season with Celtic able to offer the player a vastly superior financial package to the one on the table from Ibrox.

Over in Edinburgh, Richie Towell had a debut to forget as Hibs lost 2-0 at home to Rangers.

The on-loan Celt was at fault as Nikica Jelavik intercepted a slack back pass to score the second goal for the Gers.