THE Celtic steamroller crushed another helpless victim on Friday night as Neil Lennon’s side followed up their seven-goal annihilation of Hearts with a five-star performance at Fir Park.
Scorers: Commons 44, 76, Ambrose 54, Stokes 78, Atajic 90
If Motherwell were seeking catharsis after their humbling Scottish Cup defeat against Albion Rovers last week, they will have to find it elsewhere. Stuart McCall’s men were comprehensively swept aside by the Scottish champions who are now eight points clear at the top of the Premiership.
Kris Commons, the hat-trick headline act for Celtic last Sunday, settled for a double here in what was a highly impressive all-round team performance. Celtic remain unbeaten in league football since they lost on their previous visit to Fir Park back in April and, on this evidence, it may be some time before they taste defeat again on domestic business.
All that was lacking from another slick and purposeful start from Celtic last night, who completely dominated possession in the opening 25 minutes, was an early goal.
During that spell, there appeared a real likelihood of Motherwell being dissected in the same rapid manner Hearts were five days earlier. Lennon’s men could have been in front after just 18 seconds as they swept forward with the intention of maintaining the irresistible form they had found at Tynecastle.
Teemu Pukki, replacing the ill Nir Biton in the only change to Celtic’s starting line-up, created the opening for Mikael Lustig whose firm shot was well saved by Gunnar Nielsen. Both Lustig and Emilio Izaguirre were given licence to roam by Lennon, who began the evening with a 3-5-2 formation, and the wing-backs relished the space they were able to find.
Izaguirre romped down the left to set up the next opening for the visitors, the Honduran international’s cross finding Anthony Stokes at the near post but the striker was unable to connect cleanly enough with his header.
Motherwell were struggling to get a meaningful touch of the ball as Celtic’s pace, movement and sharp passing kept them firmly on the back foot. A well struck 20 yard free-kick from Stokes provided another test for Nielsen, the Faroese ‘keeper managing to gather the ball at the second attempt before Lustig could pounce.
To add to McCall’s problems in the torrid early period, he was forced into a change after just 10 minutes. Fraser Kerr, hurt in a challenge with Izaguirre, limped off and was replaced by Adam Cummins.
Shaun Hutchinson was rather harshly booked when penalised for a foul on Pukki but it was just another indicator of the constant pressure Motherwell were under. They were fortunate not to concede a penalty in the 20th minute when Scott Brown’s cross from the right was clearly blocked by the trailing left arm of Steven Hammell. To the indignation of Lennon, who clasped his head in the hands on the edge of his technical area, referee Steven McLean waved aside the loud appeals.
Celtic’s wide men combined to good effect once more in the 25th minute, Izaguirre whipping over another fine cross from the left which Lustig headed narrowly over.
Motherwell gradually found a brief toehold in the game, but without managing to pose any threat to Fraser Forster’s goal. Celtic were soon back in the ascendancy and Pukki should have done better than shoot tamely straight at Nielsen after being set up smartly by the impressive Joe Ledley.
It looked as if Motherwell might reach the interval with the scoreline still blank, which would have been something of an achievement in itself for the embattled home side, but they were undone by Commons’ 43rd minute opener.
Pukki, whose build-up play was far more effective than his finishing, delivered the ball from the right and Stokes sent it back across the six yard box from the left. Commons improvised superbly to backheel the ball beyond Nielsen for his 12th goal of the season. Motherwell appealed for offside against Celtic’s top scorer, but he had clearly been played on by Cummins.
Celtic were in no mood to let the initiative slip away and there was no let-up in the drive and vibrancy of their play in the second half.
Ledley headed an Izaguirre cross narrowly over immediately after the restart as the champions hunted for more goals. John Sutton, generally starved of possession up front for Motherwell, came close to an unlikely leveller when he nodded an Iain Vigurs free-kick just over but it was simply a minor interruption to the flow towards the home team’s penalty area.
Celtic made it 2-0 in the 54th minute and it was a special moment for Efe Ambrose. The Nigerian defender, who had welcomed the birth of a daughter earlier in the day, rose above Hutchinson to head home a Charlie Mulgrew corner from close range. Ambrose embarked on an elaborate and acrobatic celebration to mark the occasion.
It was all about damage limitation for Motherwell now but Celtic were not minded to take their feet off the gas. Stokes saw a shot saved by Nielsen, then Pukki contrived to miss a simple close range chance. The Finnish international was then desperately unlucky to be booked for diving when he went down in the box under a challenge from Cummins who clearly tripped him.
But Celtic would not be denied further reward for their efforts. They finally made it 3-0 with 15 minutes remaining, Nielsen guilty of weak goalkeeping as he parried a shot from Izaguirre into the path of Commons who made no mistake from a couple of yards out.
Two minutes later, the fourth arrived and it was welcome relief for Stokes as he ended a run of eight games without a goal. Pukki did well down the right to set it up, leaving Stokes with a simple close range tap-in at the far post.
Lennon took the opportunity to introduce youngsters Bahrudin Atajic and Liam Henderson in the closing stages. It was Bosnian under-21 international Atajic who put the icing on Celtic’s cake, completing the rout in the 89th minute with a delightful lob over Nielsen.
Motherwell: Nielsen, Ramsden, Hutchinson, McManus, Hammell; Kerr (Cummins 10), Lasley, Vigurs, Carswell; Moore (Anier 60), Sutton. Subs not used: Stewart, McFadden, Lawson, Murray, Ainsworth.
Celtic: Forster, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Mulgrew; Lustig, Brown (Henderson 84), Commons (Atajic 79), Ledley; Pukki (Boerrigter 79) Stokes. Subs not used: Zaluska, Balde, Johnstone, Fisher.