CELTIC sauntered back to the top of the Scottish Premiership table with a victory over a labouring Motherwell side which was as facile as it was comprehensive.
Scorers: Celtic - Van Dijk (26), Griffiths (42), Lustig (76, 81)
Goals from Virgil van Dijk and Leigh Griffiths barely told the story of the champions’ first -half dominance, while only a combination of poor finishing and misfortune restricted them to substitute Mikael Lustig’s late double after the break.
While Ronny Deila’s men have re-asserted themselves in the title race, moving one point ahead of Aberdeen with a game in hand, these are worrying times for Motherwell, who are in the relegation equation after four consecutive league defeats.
Ian Baraclough’s side arrived with a gameplan which, from the very start, prioritised damage limitation. With club captain Keith Lasley missing through injury, defender Simon Ramsden was deployed as a holding midfielder in front of the back four in a defensively minded formation which left lone striker John Sutton about as isolated as it gets.
Celtic monopolised possession with the visitors seldom able to retain the ball for more than a couple of passes whenever they did manage to get a hold of it. By contrast, the champions were tidy and precise as they knocked it around confidently, albeit being guilty at times of over-elaboration in and around the penalty area.
Kris Commons retained his place in the Celtic starting line-up amid ongoing speculation over his future, joining Stefan Johansen and Anthony Stokes in a lively advanced midfield trio offering plenty of movement in support of central frontman Griffiths. It was Commons who threatened first for the champions, seeing a close-range shot deflected narrowly off target, before Johansen was similarly close with a decent effort from around 20 yards.
Motherwell’s policy of containment was already under severe duress and skipper Stephen McManus was forced to concede a free-kick in a dangerous position with a foul on Commons. The set piece was struck sweetly by Stokes but the ball curled just over the top.
Commons came close again in the 20th minute, showing some slick footwork before firing a shot over and, six minutes later, Celtic deservedly broke the visitors’ creaking resistance. Stokes’ corner from the left was cleared straight back out to him and he returned a perfect cross to pick out Van Dijk, who rose above McManus to head home his seventh of the season from close in.
Motherwell’s initial response to the setback was to show a greater degree of enterprise. Stephen Pearson, making his second “debut” for the Fir Park club, almost caught out Celtic keeper Craig Gordon with a clever cross-cum-shot from the left which drifted just off target.
As Celtic’s level of intensity dropped temporarily, Van Dijk then had to be alert to slide in ahead of Sutton and clear a dangerous Pearson cross inside the six-yard box. It was a reminder to Deila’s men that they still had work to do and they duly regained the initiative in the closing stages of the first half.
Griffiths should have done better when he worked himself into a good position before taking a touch too much and allowing Mark O’Brien time to block his shot. But Griffiths made up for it when he doubled Celtic’s lead three minutes before the interval. Stokes was again the provider, delivering another
ideally weighted cross from the left which Griffiths nodded firmly beyond Twardzik from the edge of the six-yard box.
Both sides made a change at the start of the second half, Celtic defender Lustig making his return from a two-month injury absence for Adam Matthews, while Motherwell introduced young winger Dominic Thomas for the ineffective Lionel
Thomas made an instant impact, coming close to pulling a goal back for the visitors when he cut in from the right and clipped the outside of Gordon’s left hand post with a low shot.
It was an indication of greater attacking intent from Motherwell but it was Celtic who remained the more dominant and menacing side.
Johansen was unfortunate not to make it 3-0 in the 58th minute, heading Izaguirre’s cross against Twardzik’s right- hand post. The Norwegian came close again when his shot from a Lustig pass was well saved by the keeper. The frame of the goal came to Motherwell’s rescue again in the 65th minute, although only Izaguirre can explain how he contrived to smash the ball against the crossbar from a couple of yards out after being set up by Griffiths.
It was Lustig who finally ensured that the scoreline more accurately reflected Celtic’s almost total control,
The Swedish international swept home a left-foot shot from Forrest’s cutback in the 76th minute, then met a Griffiths cross with a firm diving header to beat Twardzik again five minutes later.
With Celtic pouring forward at will, Lustig almost became the unlikeliest of hat-trick heroes when he smacked a shot against the crossbar just five minutes from time.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews (Lustig 46), Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Commons, Johansen (Scepovic 70), Stokes (Forrest 63); Griffiths. Subs not used: Zaluska, Ambrose, McGregor, Guidetti..
Motherwell: Twardzik, Reid, O’Brien (Moore 71), McManus, Watt; Ramsden; Ainsworth (Thomas 46), Carswell, Pearson, Law; Sutton (Erwin 67). Subs not used: Nielsen, Kerr, Cadden, MacLean.