TWO years to the day since their last win against Celtic, Motherwell ended a run of eight successive defeats to Neil Lennon’s men last night.
Scorers: Motherwell - Humphrey (31) Higdon (73); Celtic - Samaras (63)
Referee: I Brines
Unlike in 2011, this result will not prove costly to Celtic in the final analysis of a championship race which remains a formality. But they will now have to wait a little longer than anticipated to cross the finishing line this season.
Michael Higdon’s 19th goal of the campaign earned Motherwell a precious win in the congested battle for runners-up spot, Georgios Samaras having cancelled out Chris Humphrey’s opener.
While Celtic laid siege to the home side’s goal in the closing stages, Motherwell merited their success after a performance full of resilience, defensive diligence and no little ambition.
James McFadden, after two substitute appearances since his return to the club last week, was named in the Motherwell starting line-up for the first time by Stuart McCall.
Not since 7 January last year, when he played for Everton in an FA Cup tie against non-league Tamworth, had the Scotland international been on the pitch in a competitive fixture at kick-off time.
Deployed in a wide left midfield role, with licence to roam inside whenever the opportunity arose, McFadden made a bright enough start with a couple of elegant touches which earned the approval of the home support.
When Motherwell earned a free-kick in a promising position inside the opening five minutes, captain Keith Lasley fouled by Tom Rogic, it looked like ideal McFadden territory. But he left the set piece duty to Nicky Law, whose well struck attempt curled around the defensive wall but just wide of Fraser Forster’s right-hand post.
The inclusion of recent Australian signing Rogic in the Celtic starting line-up was one of four changes made by Lennon, with Samaras, Victor Wanyama and Kris Commons all returning to the side. Wanyama, lining up in central defence, was captain for the night.
Rogic was involved in Celtic’s first threatening move of the evening, sending James Forrest sprinting clear down the right. The winger delivered an excellent low cross into the penalty area, only for Anthony Stokes to horribly mishit what was a clear opportunity.
McFadden’s defensive diligence when his team do not have possession has often been held up as a criticism of him and he had to cope with the adventurous play of Celtic right-back Adam Matthews here. When McFadden fouled Matthews on the edge of the penalty area, Commons bent the free-kick wide of Darren Randolph’s right-hand post.
There was an uncomfortable moment for the Motherwell defence when Shaun Hutchinson miscued an attempted clearance from a Matthews cross, but fortunately for the home side the ball ricocheted kindly into the arms of Randolph.
It was a contest generally lacking in fluidity, Celtic unable to build up any concerted attacking rhythm. Motherwell enjoyed a greater share of possession than might have been anticipated and they made the most of it, grabbing their 31st- minute lead.
Celtic were caught flat-footed at the back by Law’s fine run down the right, the midfielder cutting into the penalty area and flashing the ball across the face of the six-yard box. Humphrey, unmarked at the far post, was on hand for a simple close-range tap-in.
A frustrated Celtic side struggled to produce a menacing response and finished the first-half venting their dismay at a couple of decisions by referee Iain Brines, who booked Beram Kayal for a foul on Henrik Ojamaa, which went against them.
With little sign of immediate improvement from his team at the start of the second-half, Lennon made his first change of the night in the 54th minute with Joe Ledley replacing Rogic.
At this stage, Motherwell looked just as likely to double their advantage as Celtic did to get an equaliser. But the home side were almost caught on the counter-attack from their own corner kick when Commons led a lightning quick raid for Celtic, only to be forced wide by Randolph in the penalty area as the danger petered out.
Celtic made another substitution on the hour mark, Efe Ambrose introduced at the expense of the largely ineffective Kayal, and three minutes later the champions equalised with a goal of clinical simplicity.
Forrest found space on the right and whipped over a cross which Randolph clearly anticipated was heading directly into his grasp. But the goalkeeper had not spotted the run of Samaras, who rose to head in his tenth goal of the season from close range at the near post.
The stage now seemed set for Celtic to go on and claim victory, but Motherwell were not prepared to play along with that script. McCall replaced the tiring McFadden with Stuart Carswell in the 71st minute and two minutes later watched his team regain the lead.
The excellent Law was again the creator, eluding Ambrose and finding time and space on the left to deliver a teasing cross towards the back post. It was met by a perfectly executed close range volley by Higdon to send the home fans into rapture.
Motherwell: Randolph, Hammell, Law, Hutchinson, Humphrey, Ojamaa, Higdon, Lasley, Ramsden, McFadden, Cummins SUBS: Hollis, Saunders, Higginbotham, McHugh, Daley, Carswell, Murray.
Celtic: Forster; Matthews, Rogne, Wanyama, Izaguirre; Forrest, Kayal, Rogic, Commons; Samaras, Stokes Subs: Zaluska, Ambrose, Lassad, Ledley, McCourt, McGeouch, Hooper.