THIS was not quite a day of unconfined joy for Neil Lennon and Celtic, despite a victory which moved them to the top of the Premiership for the first time this season.
The early loss of Adam Matthews with a collarbone injury, leaving the talented Welshman facing a lengthy lay-off, was a setback Lennon could have done without as he tries to plot a Champions League revival over the next couple of months.
But there was at least considerable compensation for the Celtic manager in the shape of Matthews’ 13th minute replacement on Saturday. James Forrest stepped off the bench much earlier than planned, but the winger’s contribution happily showed he has recovered from the recent illness with which he spent five days in hospital.
The winger, who missed Celtic’s opening Champions League group stage game in Milan, then made a late substitute appearance in last week’s home defeat by Barcelona, could be a pivotal figure in the remaining Group H fixtures if his team are to force their way back into contention for a place in the last 16.
Forrest has been omitted from the Scotland squad which will gather this week for the final World Cup qualifier against Croatia after Gordon Strachan agreed to allow him more time to recuperate fully from the illness which laid him so low.
“I think that’s a really good thing for me,” said the 22-year-old. “Scotland and the club have spoken and feel I will benefit from the break. I don’t really want to talk about the illness, but I’m feeling better now. I wasn’t feeling well, I lost a bit of weight because I wasn’t eating. For ten days, I wasn’t the best. But I’m over it now and just looking forward. I’ve had a full week of training and the next couple of weeks will be good for me to get my fitness.
“I was gutted to miss out on the San Siro and I only managed 30 minutes against Barcelona, so I hope to kick on in the remainder of the Champions League games. The next game against Ajax will be big and if we play as we did in the first two games, we will be okay. We didn’t get the breaks in the first two games, so maybe we will against Ajax.”
Forrest played his part in a routine domestic victory for Celtic against a Motherwell side who did not display any purpose or ambition until far too late in proceedings. The final scoreline does not fully reflect Celtic’s level of superiority for most of the afternoon.
The outcome never seemed in doubt from the moment Anthony Stokes put them in front with his fifth goal of the season, coolly driving a precise left-foot shot from a difficult angle into the net after Motherwell goalkeeper Lee Hollis had misjudged his attempt to punch clear a Mikael Lustig cross in the 20th minute.
Stokes’ longer term future at the club remains uncertain, the Irishman expressing frustration at the weekend over the ongoing impasse regarding a new contract. Forrest has no doubts about the striker’s value to Celtic. “Anthony has always scored goals for us since he came to the club,” he said. “Everyone knows what he can also do with his link-up play as well. You get assists and goals from him. Even if he’s not playing well, he can come up with a goal and has plenty in his locker.”
Had Kris Commons been sharper in front of goal, instead of wastefully heading wide from close range and then shooting straight at Hollis from prime position, Celtic would have been out of sight before half-time.
They finally doubled the lead four minutes after the break, Commons atoning for his earlier profligacy when he brilliantly jinked his way beyond a couple of opponents before lofting a delightful right-foot shot over Hollis.
Motherwell finally found some forward momentum of their own in the closing 20 minutes, much of it initiated by impressive young substitute Fraser Kerr.
Celtic left-back Emilio Izaguirre, cautioned in the first half, was fortunate not to be penalised for a blatant foul on the 20-year-old which should have earned a dismissal by referee Iain Brines. But even though the visitors did ask some belated questions of the Celtic defence, top scorer John Sutton breaking free of his shackles to see a close-range header kept out by Fraser Forster’s magnificent one-handed save in the 85th minute, there was no real sense of a potential comeback.
So Motherwell’s wretched record at Celtic Park, where they have won just once in their last 24 visits, continued. It is now three years since they even scored a goal in the east end of Glasgow.
Celtic’s ascent to the top of the Premiership pile may have taken longer than anyone would have predicted, but you suspect they will now be there for the duration.