McLaughlin locks door

Celtic 4 McStay 7, Van Hooijdonk 12, McLaughlin 17 Donnelly 85 Heart of Midlothian 0 Attendance: 37,193
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ONCE again goal difference is all that denies Celtic from stealing Rangers' place at the top of the League. Yesterday they completed a four- goal rout over Hearts, inspired by a magnificent performance from Brian McLaughlin.

The signs had not looked good for Celtic. After parading Sporting Lisbon's Jorge Cadete last week the signing hit snags, and while the deal is not dead it is far from complete. They were also without the injured John Collins, who will struggle to retrieve his place after his replacement McLaughlin destroyed the visitors. Celtic started nervously and their normally eloquent passing stuttered early on, but it was not long before they were drawing out some lyrical football phrases.

Their inspiration was the spritely McLaughlin, who proved to be a small package of wondrous deception. At times his maltreatment of Gary Locke was positively cruel.

His first contribution was a sign of things to come. Locke, taunted at the edge of the box, mounted a heavy challenge which never came near the ball. Pierre van Hooijdonk lined up the free kick, rebounding from the wall, at the feet of Paul McStay. Poor Craig Nelson never saw the ball as McStay's second goal of the season hit the net from 25 yards. His first had been a similarly huge drive directed against Hibs.

Five minutes later Celtic scored a typically fluid goal. At half way McLaughlin held on to the ball, drawing out the Hearts defence to create space. A neat ball to Andreas Thom was in turn fed to Tosh McKinlay on the left wing. His cross was met by Van Hooijdonk's head for his 23rd goal of the season. Another six minutes and McLaughlin took his own slice of glory. Moving with ease through the Hearts defence he left Locke again gasping for breath. Nelson got a hand to his side-footed shot but failed to prevent it crossing the line.

Hearts returned from the break with striker John Robertson introduced at the expense of defender Pasquale Bruno. The move helped create chances and if he, John Colquhoun and Steve Fulton had taken their chances the game might have taken a different course. But Celtic remained superior as McLaughlin twisted through the Hearts defence only for his shot to hit the post. Astonishingly, Thom put the rebound over an open goal.

Simon Donnolly made a better job five minutes from time when McLaughlin sneaked wide on the left and swung over a perfect cross. Donnolly received it, cut inside and hit home.

With four wins over Hearts this season, at least Celtic can claim to have achieved a little grand slam of their own.