In-form striker Anthony Stokes scored a double as Celtic's title hopes were given a boost and ended high-flying Hearts 11 match unbeaten run with a convincing 4-0 win at Parkhead on Wednesday.
Hearts came into the match as the Scottish Premier League's form side having taken 31 points out of the last 33, including a 1-0 win over Rangers on Saturday that saw them close in on the top two. But Celtic, themselves unbeaten since their loss to Hearts at Tynecastle in November, saw off their challengers with goals from James Forrest and Paddy McCourt either side of Stokes' brace - taking his tally to six in the last four matches - in a physical encounter that saw seven players booked.
The win takes them ten clear of Hearts and five above Rangers, who ran out 2-0 winners against Hibs at Easter Road. At Celtic Park an injury to Daniel Majstorovic meant Charlie Mulgrew played at centre-half while Forrest and Joe Ledley were restored to the starting line-up.
Scott Brown was the driving force behind Celtic's early attacks and he set up Forrest to give the Hoops the lead in the ninth minute. The Celtic captain teed him up just inside the box but Marian Kello, the hero in the win against Rangers, could do nothing as the winger's shot flew into the top corner.
However the goalscorer's involvement in the match was to only last another 16 minutes as he limped off to with a pulled hamstring to be replaced by McCourt. Hearts began to enjoy more possession and Stephen Elliott craved out a chance when he flashed a shot across goal then Rudi Skacel's clever pass found Lee Wallace galloping down the left but his pass across goal evaded everyone.
Joe Ledley came close with a fierce first time effort from 18 yards before Skacel hit a weak half-volley straight to Fraser Forster on the stroke of half-time. Hooper stung the palms of Kello straight from the kick-off before Stokes doubled Celtic's advantage in the 50th minute.
Emilio Izaguirre won a free-kick on the edge of the box and the Irishman stepped up to curl his effort into the net low to Kello's right. The game heated up four minutes later when Ian Black picked up a booking for lashing out at McCourt on the deck and Brown, Stokes and Zalukas were booked in the resulting melee.
Jim Jefferies threw on Suso Santana and David Obua as Hearts searched for a way back into the match but it was Celtic that added to their tally in the 72nd minute. Gary Hooper beat the offside trap to race clear and as he rounded the keeper he slipped in strike partner Stokes to tap into an empty net.
McCourt completed the rout in the 80th minute when Stokes failed to connect with a Brown pass and the Irishman lashed the ball home from 14 yards.
At Easter Road two first-half goals secured the points for Rangers. Walter Smith's side took the lead when a headed clearance landed at the feet of Madjid Bougherra and the defender cracked an angled volley past Graeme Smith.
It was a debut to forget for Richie Towell as he played an attempted backpass straight to Nikica Jelavic who rounded the keeper and slotted home.