MOTHERWELL secured European qualification for the fifth time in the last six seasons and all but guaranteed runners-up spot in the Scottish Premier League as they completed an historic home win double over Celtic yesterday.
Scorers: Motherwell - Ojamaa 45, Higdon 50 (pen), Forster 55 (og); Celtic - Hooper 40
Referee: E Norris
After falling behind to Gary Hooper’s 29th goal of the season for a much-changed Celtic side, Stuart McCall’s team responded impressively to maintain the fine unbeaten form they have been in since also beating the champions at Fir Park back in February.
It is the first time since league reconstuction back in 1975 that Motherwell have won both of their home fixtures against Celtic in a single season, another milestone in a tremendous campaign for McCall and his players.
There were six changes to the Celtic line-up from the previous Sunday’s title-clinching win against Inverness as Neil Lennon gives some of his key players a break ahead of their bid to complete the domestic double at the end of next month.
But if the remainder of their SPL programme is relatively meaningless, there was no lack of initial urgency about their work and Motherwell’s success yesterday should not be in any way belittled.
Tom Rogic, the young Australian midfielder, was understandably keen to make an impression in his first starting appearance for Celtic since an underwhelming display in that 2-1 loss here in February.
Rogic created Celtic’s first opening of the afternoon, picking out the run of an onside Tony Watt behind the home defence. However, the Scotland under-21 striker, another being given a rare start, blazed his shot over the top.
The early pressure exerted by Celtic provoked a rash challenge by Motherwell defender Shaun Hutchinson on Georgios Samaras, correctly earning a booking in only the third minute.
Hutchinson almost made a more positive impression at the other end of the pitch, narrowly failing to connect with Nicky Law’s cross from a well-worked Motherwell corner as both teams made an energetic start to proceedings.
On a Fir Park playing surface which has stood up more robustly to the winter weather than in previous years, there was reasonable scope for the kind of slick passing game both sides normally attempt to produce.
James McFadden certainly glided across the pitch in inimitable fashion in the 27th minute, brilliantly eluding the challenges of two Celtic players as he cut in from the left before firing a right-foot shot off target.
But it was Celtic who were still the largely dominant force at this stage, and Motherwell goalkeeper Darren Randolph had to react smartly to keep out a Charlie Mulgrew free kick. The big Irishman bettered that save moments later, somehow defying Hooper from close range after the striker had been picked out by Rogic’s cross from the left.
Motherwell had a plausible penalty claim turned down in the 36th minute, Thomas Rogne appearing to handle the ball amid confusion caused by Henrik Ojamaa’s cross-cum-shot into the area.
Their sense of injustice was compounded when they fell behind just four minutes later, although on the balance of play at that stage Celtic merited their lead. It was engineered by Watt’s powerful run down the left, his lofted cross over Randolph finding the unmarked Hooper who headed his first effort against the crossbar before slotting home the rebound.
But with the final act of the first half, Motherwell grabbed the equaliser which laid the platform for their memorable second-half display. Captain Keith Lasley seized possession to send Ojamaa racing in behind the Celtic defence. The Estonian forward showed good composure as he rifled a right-foot shot low beyond Fraser Forster’s left hand and into the corner of the net.
A point would have been a more than acceptable outcome for Motherwell in the context of their bid for second place in the SPL, but they made it a day for their supporters to truly savour as they stormed into a winning 3-1 lead in the opening ten minutes of the second half.
They went in front from the penalty spot in the 50th minute, referee Euan Norris having no hesitation in giving the award after Ojamaa went down under a clumsy challenge by Charlie Mulgrew.
Higdon stepped forward to claim his 26th goal of the season – 25 of them in the SPL – as he drove the ball
high beyond Forster’s left hand into the roof of the net. The striker’s celebrations appeared to have a little more
relish about them than usual, perhaps a response to Lennon’s criticism of the PFA Scotland Player of the Year nominees’ list.
Before Celtic could fully gather themselves for a response, they became architects of their own downfall as five minutes later they went 3-1 behind. Tom Hateley’s cross from the right was intended for Higdon who looked to be in an offside position when it was delivered. That, however, could not fully mitigate for the calamitous defending produced by Mikael Lustig whose attempt to head the ball behind for a corner merely diverted
it against Forster’s post and in off the back of the helpless goalkeeper.
Lennon introduced Paddy McCourt and Dylan McGeouch in a bid to increase the attacking menace of his side for what proved to be an open and entertaining final half hour. But Celtic could easily have found themselves further behind, Forster making good saves from McFadden and Higdon as Motherwell continually threatened on the counter-attack. Celtic’s final substitute of the afternoon, Anthony Stokes, struck a post in stoppage time but this was to be Motherwell’s day.
Motherwell: Randolph, Hateley, Hutchinson, Ramsden, Hammell; Humphrey, Lasley, Law (Higginbotham 90), McFadden (Carswell 85); Ojamaa (Francis-Angol 89); Higdon. Subs not used: Hollis, McHugh, Kerr, Cummins.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Rogne (McCourt 67), Mulgrew, Izaguirre; Rogic (McGeouch 73), Kayal, Wanyama; Watt, Hooper, Samaras (Stokes 79). Subs not used: Zaluska, Gershon, Keatings, Atajic.
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