MOTHERWELL ensured Celtic will have to cross the finishing line in the SPL title race under their own steam after Stuart McCall’s men recorded a comprehensive and highly impressive victory over Dundee United at Tannadice.
Scorers: Dundee United - Daly (69); Motherwell - Higdon (2, 55), Ojamaa (8)
Referee: J Beaton
Anything less than an away win last night would have confirmed Celtic’s second successive championship triumph while Neil Lennon and his players were in the comfort of their own homes, courtesy of the SPL’s bizarre post-split fixture scheduling.
But a commanding performance from Motherwell, which strengthened their grip on second place in the table, means Celtic go into their home game against Inverness Caledonian Thistle tomorrow in need of at least one more point to formally retain their crown.
Michael Higdon proved the match winner for Motherwell, netting twice to set a new post-war single season league scoring record for the Fir Park club, his tally of 24 eclipsing the 23 achieved by the iconic Willie Pettigrew back in 1975-76.
Regardless of the impact this match would have on how and when Celtic clinched the title, both teams came into it fully focused on their own agendas in pursuit of European football next season.
United, who squeezed into the top six in the final minute of the last round of pre-split fixtures, knew they had little margin for error if they hoped to forge a challenge for a Europa League place which now looks to be beyond them. They could certainly ill afford to be on the wrong end of Motherwell’s turbo-charged start which saw the visitors take a 2-0 lead inside the opening eight minutes.
The second minute opener from Higdon was another special moment in what has been an outstanding campaign for the big English striker as he equalled Pettigrew’s record. Higdon’s 23rd SPL strike saw him collect a pass from James McFadden in a central position and stride forward unharried to smash a rising right-foot shot from around 20 yards in off Radoslaw Cierzniak’s left hand post.
For United, it was all too reminiscent of the previous Sunday at Hampden when they had stood off Kris Commons in the opening moments of the Scottish Cup semi-final to concede an early goal.
They tried to find a quick response and 17-year-old Ryan Gauld came close to a fifth minute equaliser when he played a smart exchange of passes with John Rankin before lofting a clever lob narrowly over the crossbar.
But it was Motherwell who dominated the opening spell. Cierzniak was forced into a good reaction save to keep out a Chris Humphrey shot, then watched in relief as a dipping volley from Keith Lasley flew just off target.
United’s Polish goalkeeper was left helpless, however, when Motherwell doubled their lead in the eighth minute. Once again, the home side’s defending was far too flimsy as Henrik Ojamaa carved his way between Rankin and Sean Dillon before stabbing a low shot beyond Cierzniak from around 14 yards.
Notwithstanding United’s frailty at the back, it was impressive stuff from Motherwell and they almost made it 3-0 in the 12th minute. McFadden, continuing his rewarding return to full match fitness, set off on a trademark weaving run before dragging a low right foot shot narrowly wide of Cierzniak’s right hand post.
United gradually stemmed the early tide and began to pose their own questions of the Motherwell defence and goalkeeper Darren Randolph. The Irishman, set to leave Fir Park when his contract expires this summer, denied his compatriot Jon Daly with a a terrific reaction save when the United captain got on the end of a Stuart Armstrong cross.
Randolph’s excellence ensured Motherwell preserved their 2-0 lead at the interval, making further good stops to keep out efforts from Gauld and Gary Mackay-Steven, the latter taking a wicked deflected off Tom Hateley, before the break.
United continued to probe for a way back into the contest in the early stages of the second half but it was Motherwell who continued to look more menacing on the counter-attack. Ojamaa came close with a dipping volley from the edge of the penalty area before Higdon put his team firmly in control with his second goal of the night in the 55th minute.
Collecting the ball from Humphrey just inside the box, the big forward turned away from Dillon’s challenge and drove a low right foot shot beyond Cierzniak’s right hand into the corner of the net.
The game appeared well and truly up for United, but they did not reduce their efforts to make a dent in the Motherwell defence. Willo Flood struck an upright with a free-kick before United finally found a way past Randolph in the 69th minute. Daly held off a challenge from Simon Ramsden then swivelled to drive home a low close range shot through the ‘keeper’s legs.
But there was to be no dramatic comeback from Jackie McNamara’s side, Randolph snuffing out their hopes of mounting a late rally when he made a fine diving save to deny Mackay-Steven.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, McLean, Souttar, Dillon, Douglas; Flood, Armstrong, Rankin (Dow 69); Gauld (Gardyne 82), Daly, Mackay-Steven (Boulding 87). Subs not used: Anderson, Tornstrand, Ryan, Johnston.
Motherwell: Randolph, Hateley, Hutchinson, Ramsden, Hammell; Humphrey (Kerr 87), Lasley, Law, McFadden (Carswell 84); Ojamaa; Higdon. Subs not used: Hollis, Higginbotham, McHugh, Francis-Angol, Cummins.