Celtic 2 – 0 Motherwell: Intrigue over Kolo Toure

Celtic's Moussa Dembele scores his side's second goal from the penalty spot. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Celtic's Moussa Dembele scores his side's second goal from the penalty spot. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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It was, Brendan Rodgers said, all about his squad as Motherwell were brushed aside by his domestically-imperious Celtic. Yet the Irishman left out a section of the explanation for fielding a team that was missing four first choices. Saturday was all about using his squad with a view to ensuring he had the XI he wants to field against Borussia Monchengladbach in the Champions League on Wednesday as fresh and fit as possible.

That explained why Nir Bitton and Mikael Lustig weren’t asked to play through the slight knocks that they picked up on international duty. The fact that Tom Rogic picks up more air miles than a BA pilot every time he heads off to represent Australia across these fortnights, meanwhile, meant Rodgers did not even entertain him being stripped only two days after stepping the latest in a dizzying recent number of long-haul flights. It was miles on the body clock that accounted for the exertions on the weekend of 35-year-old centre-back Kolo Toure stretching to only a six-minute run-out as a substitute.

Jozo Simunovic heads towards goal during Celtic's 2-0 Premiership victory over Dundee. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Jozo Simunovic heads towards goal during Celtic's 2-0 Premiership victory over Dundee. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

However, that brief appearance by Toure held greater intrigue as to what Rodgers might do to counter the threat posed by a Gladbach side that plays in a 3-4-3 formation than any other personnel deviation from the norm evident in the Irishman’s team against a youthful Motherwell that served their manager Mark McGhee’s gameplan in mature fashion.

Stuart Armstrong performed adequately in understudying Rogic, but he doesn’t possess the pizazz of the nimble-footed playmaker. Liam Henderson, in a first Celtic start for more than a year-and-a-half, certainly threw himself into his tasks – both figuratively and literally – but, in doing so, reminded us that Bitton can bring a considered assurance alongside Scott Brown. Cristian Gamboa wasn’t tested as he filled in for Lustig, but the Swede is unlikely to play second fiddle to the summer signing any time soon.

What was noticeable on Saturday – apart from a thrilling display from Kieran Tierney that lends weight to the feeling we are watching the blossoming of a major talent in the 19-year-old full-back – was that, in a central defence not reliant on Toure, Jozo Simunovic and Erik Sviatchenko look the part as a combination. A second successive clean sheet was earned with the duo a dominant pair – albeit that both Motherwell, and Dundee before them, hardly had the means or will to apply any sustained pressure.

With only yet another fine strike from Scott Sinclair – his seventh in eight league games – separating the teams going into the closing stages on Saturday, Rodgers reshaped his side to form a back-three of Toure, Simunovic and Sviatchenko. Maybe that was just because he felt the immediate situation warranted that change. Or perhaps he was thinking about matching up to the Germans in some respects.

Moussa Dembele converts a late penalty to make the game safe for Celtic on Saturday. Picture: SNS.

Moussa Dembele converts a late penalty to make the game safe for Celtic on Saturday. Picture: SNS.

Simunovic, an athletic, powerful front-foot defender, is a perfect foil for Sviatchenko, whose greatest strength is his ability to read the game and almost play a sweeper role. The 23-year-old Simunovic looked like he was destined never to have a Celtic career to speak of after missing six months with knee problems before he looked like departing on deadline day to Torino, only for that move to collapse at the last minute.

The player, signed for £3.5 million from Croatia Zagreb last August, has not yet started for Rodgers in Europe. He looks ready for that but may not do so in midweek. Rodgers could revert to the starting XI that proved so potent – though also, notably, porous – in the breathtaking 3-3 draw with Manchester City last month. His big players that night all impressed at the weekend, with Moussa Dembele earning a last-gasp penalty out of a desire Rodgers talked of coming from his telling his squad not to be hungry but starving for success.

He chased down what was basically a knock-on into the penalty area from Scott Brown that it seemed Motherwell keeper Craig Samson, who pulled off three terrific saves, would reach. Instead he made contact with the striker and not the ball. “In hindsight, I probably should have stayed where I was,” said Samson. “I saw Dembele coming and, unfortunately, my legs aren’t as fast as his.”

The Frenchman is certainly motoring and has now raced on to the 13-goal mark, thanks to his clinical conversion of the spot-kick Samson gave John Beaton no option but to award.

It spoiled a day that Motherwell – following their 5-0 League Cup defeat at Celtic Park in August and their 7-0 drubbing their in the final afternoon of last season – could have found acceptable, especially with teenagers Jack McMillan and Ross McLean earning first starts.

“You are never happy to walk away with a 2-0,” said Samson, who declared the Motherwell youngsters to have been “different class”.

“The last time we came here we lost 5-0 but I think Celtic were absolutely brilliant that night. This time, we had a different gameplan. We worked on something and it nearly paid off.

“It doesn’t matter who you are playing or where it is, you are never happy to lose a game of football. I think we have learned. It’s always difficult to come here. Celtic are full of confidence. They are playing great football and doing well in the Champions League, which is good for Scottish football.

“It’s always going to be difficult and I’m sure they’ll take a lot of goals off some teams. But everyone will be learning and trying to come up with something to take points off them.”

Celtic’s more immediate, and more daunting, challenge is not to let a Bundesliga side take points off them.