Stilian Petrov ensured yesterday that Celtic finished 2004 as they began it - at the top of the pile. The Bulgarian midfielder scored yet another breathtaking goal for the champions to seal a success at Tynecastle that stretched their lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League to four points.
While Celtic might not have the cushion they enjoyed this time last year, when they remained unbeaten all the way to May, there is little doubt that Martin O'Neill's side have recovered their zest, as this victory showed in a robust encounter.
"We are back to normal now," Petrov said. "We kept another clean sheet, which is something we did not do earlier in the season. I was not scoring goal for a while but now they are coming for me. This is always a hard place to come and we wanted to be top at new year."
While Petrov's picturebook finish in the 68th minute will live in the memories of the raucous travelling support, the early breakthrough from Aiden McGeady was equally valuable.
The teenager's predatory instincts in the ninth minute saw him get to the back post to finish off Petrov's low cross with an angled shot past Craig Gordon.
O'Neill said Scottish supporters should be cheering McGeady, not booing him. The 18-year-old, who has endeared himself to the Celtic support by becoming a key member of the side, has courted controversy by electing to play for the Republic of Ireland rather than Scotland, and O'Neill said: "I'm quite sure that when he set out in the game the last thing he was thinking about was going to away grounds and finding himself being booed. For all that trickery you think he might occasionally be applauded."
Celtic missed five good chances before half-time, with John Hartson and Petrov equally culpable. Petrov dragged another finish wide just before the hour, but he redeemed himself with a volley nine minutes later from Chris Sutton's knockdown that rifled into the net from 16 yards, and sealed Celtic's victory.
The Hearts head coach, John Robertson, said the delay surrounding the takeover of the club had left him "in no man's land" with his attempts to keep players. The club's prospective new owner Vladimir Romanov was to take control earlier this month but the deal has been put back to February.
Robertson said: "It is very frustrating because there are a lot of players who have been given contracts and they have refused to sign them or are waiting to see what is happening. Until someone tells me what we can or cannot offer, there is not a lot we can do."
Goals: McGeady (9) 0-1; Petrov (68) 0-2.
Hearts (4-5-1): Gordon; Neilson, Pressley, McKenna, Maybury; Stamp, Stewart (MacFarlane 11), Hartley, Wyness (Hamill 57), McAllister (Weir 73); De Vries. Substitutes not used: Moilanen (gk), Pereira, Jancyzk, Berra.
Celtic (4-4-2): Douglas; McNamara, Baldé, Varga, Laursen; Petrov, Lennon, Thompson, McGeady; Sutton, Hartson. Substitutes not used: Marshall (gk), Juninho, Lambert, Camara, Maloney, Wallace, McManus.
Referee: M McCurry.
Booked: Hearts: Weir, MacFarlane, De Vries; Celtic: Hartson.
Man of the match: Petrov.
Attendance: 16,163.Reuse content