Three contenders for the Scottish championship? Four goals without reply for Celtic against Hearts at Parkhead last night put paid to that optimistic prognosis.
Hearts' support, buoyed by success against Rangers on their previous outing, turned up in the east end of Glasgow only to find that their team had not. A disappearing defence, marshmallow midfield and invisible attack made it easy for a resolute Celtic side to romp to a handsome victory with two goals from Anthony Stokes and supplementary strikes from James Forrest and Paddy McCourt.
Rangers' 2-0 victory against Hibs meant the Glasgow pair stayed within five points of each other -- with Rangers having two games in hand -- yet, for Hearts this was a dispiriting night.
Their most obvious tactic -- the deployment of Kevin Kyle against the depleted heart of the Celtic back line -- was rendered void before kick-off by the forward's failure to overcome a groin injury.
The contest was hardly under way when it became all too clear that Hearts had no purchase on the proceedings. Celtic, fully aware of their potential vulnerability in a makeshift central defence, played an effective pressing game which allowed the visiting players no scope to build any effective rhythm.
Hearts looked remarkably ill at ease, an impression that was reinforced when Celtic won consecutive throw-ins on their right, both taken by Mark Wilson, the second of which was worked across the field to Forrest.
Hearts stood off inexplicably and when Eggert Jonsson did attempt to shut off the space available to the teenager he was unable to prevent Forrest rasping a rising left-foot drive past Marian Kello from the edge of the box.
Forrest did not survive beyond the midway point of the half, when he pulled up with a hamstring strain and was replaced by McCourt.
The interval might have provided Hearts with an opportunity to regroup and they used the respite to alter their personnel, not that it made any difference to the flow of the match.
Celtic simply repeated their brisk opening, should have been ahead when Gary Hooper shot straight at Kello instead of picking out the unmarked Stokes, but doubled their margin from a free-kick on the edge of the box after Ismael Bouzid fouled Emilio Izaguirre.
From the moment the ball left Stokes' boot it looked netbound and so it proved as the Dubliner's fierce effort swooped over the wall and past Kello.
Stokes got his second in circumstances that left Kello both beaten and fortunate not to be sent off. The Hearts back line, pushing forward, were caught flat footed by a simple return ball from midfield and Hooper was set free, one on one with the goalkeeper, who sent him sprawling.
The ball, though, broke to Stokes who rolled it over the empty line and spared Kello a red card for illegally preventing a goalscoring opportunity, although the letter of the law might have demanded it.
Stokes, on the sniff for a third, inadvertently contributed to Celtic's fourth when he swiped at air and the ball ran on to McCourt, who showed how it should be done with a tidy finish, although the game itself was effectively long past that distinction. (© Daily Telegraph, London)