Celtic: Hearts deliver 'boot up the rear' to Rodgers' 'invincibles'
Had you ventured into the Tynecastle Arms on Saturday night and asked every last Hearts fan in the place for their most optimistic scenario for the meeting with Celtic the day after, the chances are that none of their boozy dreams would have been as big and as fanciful as the trippy reality.
Harry Cochrane was 10 years old the last time Hearts beat Celtic. Fellow midfielder Anthony McDonald was 11.
For 20 games going back five-and-a-half years, Celtic had lorded it over them to a painful degree. Eighteen victories and two draws; 62 goals scored and nine conceded.
There were three 4-0s in that lot, a couple of 5-0s, a 7-0 that could have been a 10-0. It was all very well-established goal-scorers such as Gary Hooper, Kris Commons and Scott Sinclair scoring hat-tricks in that run, but lesser lights always seemed to get some joy out of the Jambos as well.
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Lassad Nououi scored three goals in 19 games for Celtic and two of them were against Hearts. Colin Kazim-Richards only scored once in the league in 11 matches in his time in Scotland. You already know against whom he got it.
And then there was Sunday. Craig Levein spoke in the aftermath of the record-busting win. Hearts' manager mentioned that Anderlecht's 1-0 victory in Glasgow in the Champions League had been at the core of the game plan.
It was, but it wasn't the only game they studied. Levein and Austin MacPhee, his assistant, also learned from Motherwell's performance in the League Cup final, up until Cedric Kipre's red card.
MacPhee is a mate of Stephen Robinson, the Motherwell manager. It's fair to say they might have had a conversation about Motherwell's recent triple-header against the champions.
At the heart of the research was, essentially, a numbers game. InStat is a company that specialises in a bewildering array of football statistics and formulae. The analysis of the Anderlecht game showed that the Belgians played a pressing 4-3-3 and that the three midfielders and three attacking players covered an average of 11.8km per man when hustling and harrying Celtic out of possession.
In the League Cup final, Motherwell played a diamond with two strikers, but their numbers were also close to an 11.8km average before Kipre was sent off. Celtic were on top, and had the lead, but Motherwell were making a game of it, just as they did right to the death in the 1-1 draw at Fir Park.
|Celtic's unbeaten domestic run (all but one under Brendan Rodgers)|
|P 69 W 60 D 9 L 0|
|Scottish Premiership: P 56 W 47 D 9 L 0|
|Goals for: 197|
|Clean sheets: 38|
And that's all Levein and MacPhee were hoping for - to make it competitive. The fact that it became a rout was as big a surprise to them as anybody else.
They knew they had players who had the engine to run the kind of numbers that Anderlecht ran - Kyle Lafferty, Don Cowie and Ross Callachan have already done it. They reckoned Cochrane was capable of it and so, too, David Milinkovic.
That was the challenge that was laid down to them all. Hit the 11.8km average, frustrate Celtic, press them high up the pitch, cut out the passing route to their most dangerous players, refuse to let them settle and force some errors. Anderlecht forced a heap of errors that night in Glasgow.
None of that, even if executed perfectly, guaranteed them goals, of course. That was the dramatic part.
Work rate would only get them so far. When Celtic became harassed at the back, Hearts produced the ruthlessness to punish them and that was the thing that electrified Tynecastle and reduced Celtic to the kind of state we have only seen them adopt on bad Champions League nights.
Celtic blundered under pressure, but there was still plenty for Hearts to do. Their speed of thought, speed of movement and accuracy were terrific.
The swiftness of Cochrane's finish, the precision of Lafferty's strike, hit on the run into a yard of space, the coolness of Milinkovic in rounding Craig Gordon for the third and the flourish of a fourth from the penalty spot.
What does all of this mean for Hearts? Confidence, for sure. They won a huge victory with two exciting 16-year-olds on the park and some experienced men out injured. They seem to be pushing through some miserable weeks where they couldn't buy a win. They now have three in a row, with seven goals scored and none conceded.
They have momentum, but momentum can be checked in a heartbeat in this league. In their next four games - including one cup tie - they have St Johnstone, Aberdeen and Hibernian twice.
They now know what heights they can hit, but can they hit them on a more regular basis? Was Celtic a one-off peak or something more meaningful?
It wasn't needed, but there was a compelling backdrop to Sunday. There hasn't been a lot of love lost between Hearts and Celtic this past while.
The management at Tynecastle were annoyed by some of the things that Brendan Rodgers came out with after Ian Cathro was sacked in August. Rodgers spoke up for Cathro and, in arguing that he wasn't given the opportunity to do the job the way he wanted to do, he drew the ire of Jon Daly, the caretaker manager at the time. Daly then buried Rodgers in a media conference.
After the game on Sunday, though, Rodgers was classy, both in his interviews and behind the scenes with the Hearts management. He was said to be "humble" and "generous". There was, said one person who was in the room with him, "a real sense of conviction in his praise" of what Hearts had done.
Celtic's fantastic run had to end sometime, but nobody saw it ending in this way. That might be no bad thing for Rodgers.
This was a firm boot up the rear-end for a team that has shown some vulnerability of late. They've lost their edge. A thrashing and the loss of pride that went with it might help them rediscover themselves.
Too many of the go-to men of last season are playing below par. Gordon, Jozo Simunovic, Stuart Armstrong, Moussa Dembele, Leigh Griffiths and Sinclair have not kicked on, although there are mitigating circumstances for Griffiths, whose influence has been reduced in line with his game-time.
They're 11 points and nine goals behind where they were in the league this time last year, but that's probably an unfair assessment. Last season was a historic, almost impossible-to-repeat campaign.
What's interesting is that they are also behind, in points and goals, where they were at this stage of Ronny Deila's second and final season as Celtic manager. That's not so clever given the standards they have set for themselves.
Rodgers said that the team needs to be congratulated for all that they have achieved in their unbeaten run, but that they need to hit the reset button now. He was right on both counts.