Near the end of a match that in the first half was as one-sided as Custer’s Last Stand, Motherwell substitute Lionel Ainsworth arrowed in a cross that found the head of his fellow substitute, Lee Erwin, standing all alone in front of Craig Gordon’s goal.
All Erwin had to do was nod the ball forwards and it would have been a goal, yet somehow he made contact with the wrong twelfth of his threepenny-bit head and the ball went well wide.
Had Erwin scored, Motherwell would have snatched a share of the points that they would not have deserved, yet Celtic would only have had themselves, and opposition goalkeeper Dan Twardzik, to blame if they had not won.
James Forrest was back for Celtic, while Motherwell’s Keith Lasley made his 400th appearance for the club. The veteran midfielder was missing his colleague, Paul Lawson, injured last week.
The champions took the lead after six minutes and then contrived to miss chance after chance. When Motherwell revived near the end, Celtic’s defence opened up and the home side might well have snatched all the points as Erwin missed another glorious chance in injury time after referee Calum Murray decided the 20-year-old striker had not been pushed by Virgil van Dijk in the penalty area – he then booked Erwin for a blatant dive, but some referees might have given a penalty.
The Celtic goal after six minutes was down to a Motherwell error. John Guidetti had already missed a glorious chance created for him by captain Scott Brown’s through ball when the Swede bustled Fraser Kerr into a bad back-pass, allowing Stefan Johansen to beat Simon Ramsden to the ball, round Twardzik and set up Anthony Stokes to side-foot home.
For the next half-hour, Celtic sliced through Motherwell at will, playing some precision passing football in rain-sodden conditions. Forrest raced through and shot wide after 13 minutes before Twardzik saved Johansen’s effort on 20 minutes.
A few minutes later, Guidetti had the ball in the net with an overhead bicycle kick. Everyone in the stadium thought he was miles offside, as did the assistant referee, only for television replays to show he was in line with the last defender when the ball was put through to him.
Celtic won a succession of corners but failed to take advantage, and then Motherwell suffered another reverse, losing Kerr to injury, David Ferguson coming on in his place.
Motherwell have been noted for their pressing game, which gives other teams no time on the ball, but this time it was Celtic doing the in-your-face stuff as their manager, Ronny Deila, preaches, maintaining the footballing equivalent of a basketball full-court press as they dominated play entirely.
“The first 20 minutes were brilliant today,” Deila said afterwards. “We pressed well, we created chances and totally controlled the ball. If we had done that for 90 minutes, it would be the game that we want to play.”
As it was, Motherwell almost equalised in controversial circumstances. A fierce shot from Henrik Ojamaa struck Efe Ambrose in a place where the sun doesn’t shine, and the defender went down in the penalty box, writhing in agony. The law says it is up to the players to put the ball out so that an injured man can get attention, unless a head knock is involved, but, as is their perfect right, Motherwell played on until Iain Vigurs’ shot was well held by Gordon. The international goalkeeper showed what he thought of the situation by throwing the ball over the east stand roof and out of the stadium.
Motherwell’s revival continued at the start of the second half when Ojamaa shot wide after Celtic failed to clear their lines before normal service was resumed. Now it was Twardzik’s turn to shine, just as he did in defeat against Dundee United in last week’s Scottish Cup. He foiled Forrest, Stokes and Emilio Izaguirre in turn before Ramsden felled Forrest with a shocking tackle in the 66th minute that saw him receive a straight red card.
Celtic piled on the pressure against ten men, Twardzik saving brilliantly from Guidetti before blocking Izaguirre’s close-range shot with his body. The ball rebounded off the Honduran’s knee and looped over the bar, but Twardzik did not need luck to then make a quick double save from Guidetti and Forrest – his skills were enough.
The young Czech even survived a head knock – referee Murray this time correctly stopped play – before Erwin made his late interventions that almost, but not quite, saved the day for Motherwell.
Motherwell’s caretaker manager Kenny Black said: “We keep giving away silly goals. When that opening goal went in, I thought it was going to be one of those long afternoons. But we hung in there with poor finishing from Celtic and our own good defending, and our goalkeeper had another excellent game.”