Celtic 3 Hearts 0: Nakamura puts Celtic in mood for Barça test

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The Independent Online

Barcelona were put on the backburner, as Celtic stoked the flame of their domestic ambition. Ruthless finishing from strike partners Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Scott McDonald – who now have 37 goals between them – killed off Hearts and sent a message to Rangers.

Gordon Strachan's side narrowed the gap on their rivals at the top of the SPL to one point and can now focus on Barcelona's Champions' League visit to Celtic Park. "There will not be a place anywhere in Europe to match this place on Wednesday night," declared the Celtic manager.

Celtic had not been at home for a month and absence had certainly made the heart grow fonder: almost every seat was full, testimony to the inspiring away displays in recent weeks at Kilmarnock and Aberdeen.

Celtic could have gone ahead after just five minutes when Shunsuke Nakamura clipped the inside of the post with a deft, free-kick. The rebound fell to McDonald, who attempted to bundle the ball in with his chest but Steve Banks kept the effort out. Banks eclipsed that save when he denied Nakamura's shot but the Celtic pressure paid dividends in the 14th minute.

A Nakamura corner was cleared out to the feet of Aiden McGeady, who checked back outside the box and left Andy Driver in his wake before flighting a cross that invited the lunge from Vennegoor of Hesselink and the Dutchman stabbed the ball home. However, that galvanised Hearts with Andrius Ksanavicius's deflected cross being scrambled off the line by Stephen McManus, who headed to safety over the bar.

Hearts ought to have equalised in the 49th minute, when Driver exposed Andreas Hinkel but lacked belief with his finish and Artur Boruc produced what was a pivotal save. Celtic doubled their lead two minutes later. Nakamura's corner was met by McDonald who planted a firm header into the roof of the net.

The contest, though, never died. The passion even spilled off the pitch, with Celtic's Scott Brown and Hearts coach Steve Frail lashing out at each other. Georgios Samaras came on but it was Hinkel who hit the third. A wonderful move saw McGeady lay off Nakamura's pass into Hinkel, whose angled shot found the net. Cruelly, Samaras was denied his goal with a venomous shot coming off the inside of the post in the dying minutes.

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