THERE is no law that says that teams who visit Celtic Park in the SPFL must allow themselves to be dominated so completely as Motherwell were on Saturday.
Scorers: Celtic - Stokes, 21, Commons, 49
There is no rule that says that visitors can’t have a go, can’t contribute anything to the game bar the kind of grunt that saw Keith Lasley pile into Adam Matthews early in the game, the Welshmen then stretchered from the field with a suspected fractured collarbone.
That was one of the few times that Stuart McCall’s side gave Celtic pause to stop and think.
Celtic were efficient and full of energy in the beginning. They tired or simply just got bored as the game wore on, their 2-0 advantage seemingly under no threat until Fraser Forster had to make a fine save from John Sutton with five minutes left. It was Motherwell’s one attack of any note and it almost drew a gasp of astonishment from the home crowd, such was the shock at seeing Forster being forced into action.
The big man added to his burgeoning reputation with a terrific point-blank save that said as much about his concentration levels as it did about his shot-stopping prowess.
It was the injury to Matthews that cast a gloom over Celtic’s day. The full-back has become one of the unsung stars of this team and he will be badly missed if the worst is confirmed later today.
A few weeks back, Celtic were seemingly coasting when leading 2-0 against St Johnstone only to get a fright with a late Saints goal and an effort that hit their post. This wasn’t another one of those days for Motherwell had little of the gumption that St Johnstone had.
For the most part they were a total non-event.
McCall’s team were always going to struggle with the pace and goal-power of Neil Lennon’s team but their inability to find a way of at least making a contest of it reflected very badly on them.
Inverness Caley Thistle came here with a bright attitude and got a draw that could have been a win. Morton came here in the League Cup and engineered a victory. Last time out in the SPFL, St Johnstone were out-classed for large parts of the game but found something before the end and could have stolen a point.
It can be done. Teams do it all the time.
Motherwell, though, were as lame as could be. They played like a team that had spent the week studying their recent history at Celtic Park, a grim catalogue of defeats – eight in the last nine visits – that saw them score the sum total of one goal.
Apart from Sutton’s attempt, it’s hard to recall any other meaningful attempt on goal. It’s also a puzzler trying to remember any other half-reasonable passage of play. They went down with a whimper. The wonder was that they only lost by two goals.
Any notion of them actually taking any points from the game existed only in the minds of the deluded once Anthony Stokes smashed Celtic into a 20th-minute lead. Motherwell’s policy coming here was containment coupled with hope. Five men were strung across the midfield and Sutton was left up front on his own to feed on whatever bits and pieces came his way. To say that the striker had to survive on crumbs was to put it mildly. Crumbs would have been a banquet compared to what Sutton had to live on. But once Stokes scored, the McCall gameplan was redundant and yet he stuck with it until the second goal went in, by which time another striker wasn’t going to be enough to turn the tide.
Stokes first, though. Celtic had enjoyed a Barca-esque amount of possession up to that point – and did so for the rest of the day – so when the Dubliner thundered a shot past Lee Hollis after a Mikael Lustig cross and a flick-on from Kris Commons, it was hardly a surprise.
Stokes’ finish was excellent, the striker taking advantage of a confused defence and a goalkeeper who got himself trapped in no-man’s land.
It should have been added to quickly. Kris Commons missed with a close-range header, then fine work from the authoritative Virgil van Dijk teed up Commons again, but his shot was beaten away Hollis.
The midfielder is a class act, though. A constant source of invention and cleverness. Just before he scored he had given Stokes some stick for failing to pick him out in space on the edge of the box. Next time Commons saw an opportunity, he didn’t need to rely on anybody else to make the most of it. He did it all by himself. Picking up the ball just inside his own half, Commons sized up the moment in a split-second, nut-megged Stephen McManus and motored on to clip the ball over the advancing Hollis.
It was close to the hour when McCall brought on Henri Anier to offer some support for Sutton, but it was too little, too late.
The procession meandered to a conclusion with only some spurned Celtic chances and Sutton’s late attempt drawing a reaction from the masses. Their thoughts, by then, were with Matthews in his hospital bed.
Forster, Lustig, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre (86), Matthews (13), Mulgrew, Brown, Commons, Stokes, Pukki (75)
Forrest (13), Biton (75), Balde (86)
Hollis, Ramsden, Hutchison, McManus, Hammell, Ainsworth (63), Carswell, Lasley (86), Vigurs (58), Francis-Angol, Sutton
Anier (58), Kerr (63), Lawson (86)