Gary Hooper scores a double in Celtic's 4-1 trashing of Hearts
GARY Hooper showed why he is so highly rated by manager Neil Lennon by scoring a double in Celtic's Clydesdale Bank Premier League win over Hearts at Parkhead.
The Northern Irishman confirmed yesterday that the Scottish champions had rejected an offer, reported to be about £5million, from Norwich for the 24-year-old English striker.
Hooper showed why he is attracting attention from south of the border when he slid in an Adam Matthews cross in the second minute for his 19th goal of the season.
Georgios Samaras added a second 10 minutes later but after Jason Holt pulled a goal back in the 68th minute there was a nervy spell for the home side which only ended five minutes from time when Hooper grabbed a third, before substitute Lassad Nouioui, on for Matthews, grabbed a fourth in added time.
Lennon will be hoping that he will still have Hooper in his side before Celtic face Juventus in the last 16 of the Champions League next month but he will also be pleased that his side, if belatedly, ran up the scoreline their first-half superiority deserved.
Goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska was given a rare start for Celtic, replacing number one Fraser Forster, suffering with a neck problem which could keep him out for a couple of weeks.
Kelvin Wilson was suspended but Charlie Mulgrew moved into the centre of defence leaving Israel defender Rami Gershon, signed on loan from Standard Liege until the end of the season, to start on the bench along with striker Anthony Stokes who was back from an ankle injury which had kept him out since August.
Hearts had captain Marius Zaliukas and Ryan Stevenson suspended.
Former Rangers defender Danny Wilson, 21, who joined Hearts on loan for the rest of the season from Liverpool yesterday, made his debut alongside the returning Andy Webster, another ex-Ibrox player, who was made skipper.
Before the game started there was a minute's applause in memory of Sean Fallon, the former Celtic player and assistant manager, who died yesterday, aged 90.
The home fans were still remembering the Parkhead legend when the home side took the lead.
Right-back Matthews raced up the wing and got the break of the ball as he attempted a one-two before driving into the box and squaring for Hooper to slide in from a couple of yards out.
The Tynecastle side looked all over the place and there was no surprise when Celtic doubled their lead 10 minutes later.
Again, the danger came down the Jambos' left-hand side. Midfielder Kris Commons pushed his way past Kevin McHattie and turned Wilson before his shot was parried by keeper Jamie MacDonald out to Samaras who tapped into an empty net.
It looked like a Celtic goal-fest was on the cards but Hearts stabilised, to an extent, while the champions slackened off a bit.
Matthews was still providing Celtic's biggest threat down the right-hand side although in the 33rd minute it was Mulgrew who bravely stuck his head in front of Victor Wanyama's powerful but wayward drive, only to see the ball fly wide of the target.
Moments later, after Wanyama had initiated another attack, Commons turned McHattie before curling a shot towards the far post but his effort lacked the pace to trouble MacDonald.
Hooper then forced his way past the Hearts defence only to be thwarted by MacDonald with Joe Ledley's shot from the rebound blocked by Webster.
Jamie Walker replaced Callum Paterson for the start of the second half and within five minutes he had tested Zaluska with a low drive after skipping through the Celtic defence.
Seconds later Hooper had the ball in the net from a Commons cross but was ruled offside.
On the hour mark, with the Parkhead side in complete control, skipper Scott Brown headed a Matthews cross over the bar from eight yards and moments later Hooper set up Ledley, whose drive from 10 yards was well saved by MacDonald for a corner, which was defended.
Five minutes later Walker again made a chance for himself when he broke past Celtic defender Mikael Lustig before making his way into the Parkhead box but his shot went high over the bar.
Moments after Beram Kayal replaced Ledley, the visitors found themselves back in the game when Holt burst through the middle and unleashed a drive which deflected off Lustig and spun past Zaluska.
A game that had been a stroll for the home side took on an edge but in the 85th minute, following determined work by Brown, the ball fell to Hooper and he slammed it low past MacDonald.
Lassad made it four as the game nudged into added time when he converted a cross from Emilio Izaguirre.