Celtic 3 Hibernian 2: Hartson plays lead role in fine advert

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The Independent Football

John Hartson was pivotal to the start and finish of the most absorbing game anywhere this season as Celtic kept their nerve in face of Hibernian's vigour and increased their lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League.

Gordon Strachan was so immersed in this contest at Parkhead, with four goals in 18 second-half minutes, that he never gave thought to Hearts' slip-up, a goalless draw at home to Inverness. "This was a great advert for the Scottish game, loaded with our own young players," said the Celtic manager.

Such is the appeal of Hibernian these days that every audience they play in front of is augmented by a huge posse of scouts from other clubs watching Tony Mowbray's precocious kids. Tottenham Hotspur and Anderlecht have been watching the midfielder Scott Brown and striker Derek Riordan recently, while Kevin Thomson is coveted by Celtic.

The Edinburgh side's stylish defeat of Rangers a fortnight earlier had seemed to hint at their own title ambitions, but Mowbray warned about the inconsistency of youth.

This contest was laced with impressive technique as both teams passed the ball with ambition and craft. Hibernian lacked a cutting edge and while chances were at a premium, Celtic hinted at greater threat.

The Hibernian defender Gary Smith was forced to turn away a header from Hartson after Shaun Maloney's free-kick picked him out, and then Shunsuke Nakamura carved the visitors open in the 22nd minute after robbing Thomson and releasing Stilian Petrov. The Bulgarian clipped his shot over goalkeeper Zbigniew Malkowski, but the vigilant Gary Caldwell got back to knock the ball away.

When Petrov and Hartson both found other efforts blocked it seemed as if frustration would engulf Celtic, but five minutes before the interval Hartson put them ahead. Nakamura whipped in a difficult free-kick from the left for the striker to stoop and guide a header past Malkowski.

Hartson's goal uncorked a stunning second half that was peppered with goals. Three of them came in the opening 12 minutes, as Hibernian stunned Parkhead. First, Guillaume Beuzelin equalised in the 48th minute with a well-timed run to meet Thomson's corner and plant a firm downward header past Arttur Boruc.

Six minutes later, Mowbray's tyros went in front with a sumptious strike from Steven Fletcher, who chested down Steven Whittaker's crossfield pass and sent a dipping volley into the roof of the net.

However, Celtic responded swiftly. Just four minutes had elapsed before Maloney punished Caldwell's foul on Nakamura by curling a free-kick over the wall past Malkowski.

The seal on a remarkable contest was provided by Hartson, as Paul Telfer's low cross was met by Maloney's shot, which came back off the post and was stabbed in by Hartson. Near the end, Hartson was denied a hat-trick when his diving header thumped the bar, but little stands in Celtic's way just now.