Stilian Petrov continued his rich vein of form yesterday as he provided the cutting edge to a masterful Celtic performance that shredded Hearts in a torrid Scottish Cup tie at Tynecastle and sent out a clear signal of intent in their pursuit of the Double.
With the League title virtually secured, Petrov swept Celtic into the quarter-finals with two sublime first-half goals. The midfielder was only denied his hat-trick by goalkeeper Craig Gordon's save in stoppage time, and Henrik Larsson polished off the crumbs by pouncing on the rebound to score.
Hearts, who won the trophy in 1998, lost their dignity in the closing stages and finished with nine men as Paul Hartley and Alan Maybury were sent off as frustration was allowed to cloud judgement and Neil Lennon became the target of a campaign of victimisation.
For Martin O'Neill, the pleasure was in seeing his team's best performance in months, but for Petrov there was a measure of relief that Lennon had avoided serious injury from his assailants.
"I was just happy that Neil did not get injured," said Petrov. "The tackles were flying in on him and I think teams get frustrated because they cannot get past him." O'Neill was equally vexed, adding: "Neil seems to get particularly harsh treatment wherever we go, but I told the players at half-time that discipline and keeping 11 men on the pitch was as important as another goal."
Celtic's defeat here last April cost them the championship and they must have had some misgivings at coming to what O'Neill described as the "hardest place outside Ibrox" but when Petrov stole in after just three minutes, the contest was in their control.
Robert Douglas's long ball was flicked on by Chris Sutton to Larsson, who played a reverse pass in behind left-back Patrick Kisnorbo for Petrov to advance on Gordon and clip a deft right foot finish beyond the keeper.
Hearts found no room to breathe, let alone recover, and Celtic's hunger was underlined after 33 minutes when Petrov scored one the finest goals this season. The six-man move saw Hearts carved open by another Sutton reverse pass which was helped on by Larsson's cushioned flick on the run for Petrov to compose himself and thrash a right-foot volley past Gordon from 16 yards.
Hearts tried to stem the tide, though only with folly, courtesy of Hartley and Maybury. Celtic retaliated by breaking upfield, and Larsson buried a header after Gordon had kept out Petrov's shot.
Heart of Midlothian 0 Celtic 3
Petrov 3, 33, Larsson 90
Half-time: 0-2 Attendance: 15,372
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