ONCE Celtic got into their stride there was no stopping them. That was the case in this game, and will surely also be the verdict on the whole SPL season come May.
Celtic - Hooper (32), Cummins og (35)
Referee: I Brines
This result, the most comprehensive 2-0 win you are likely to see, took Neil Lennon’s team to the top of the table – and that with a game in hand on their closest rivals. In the short term, the champions could be displaced as early as Saturday, when Motherwell are at home to Dundee United. But on this form they should regain the lead the following day when Hearts visit Celtic Park, and thereafter seem set to pull steadily away from what can only flatteringly be called the chasing pack.
What made this result all the more significant was that Motherwell actually did not play badly. Embarrassingly meek in midweek against Rangers, they were far more competitive here, were arguably the better side for the first 20 minutes, and competed gamely until the end. But their honest toil was ineffectual against a Celtic side who were firing on all cylinders, and from the moment Gary Hooper gave the visitors the lead the outcome was never in doubt.
The goal, which took the striker’s tally to six in his last three matches, typified the difference between the teams. Quick-thinking and light on their feet, Celtic’s attackers simply looked like they were playing on a different surface to the stodgy Motherwell defence.
Hooper began the move himself, chesting the ball down to Commons around the halfway line then setting off on a run up front. With James Forrest also showing excellent movement off the ball, the back four were caught in several minds about what to do. Shaun Hutchinson at least read Commons’s exquisitely flighted pass to the striker well enough to make contact, but unfortunately for the centre-half his positioning was off, and he came inches short of making proper contact with his attempted header.
That still left Hooper with a lot to do, but he did it with minimal fuss. Killing the ball first time, he sprinted on into the penalty area, and scored with a low shot past the advancing Darren Randolph.
Celtic had already attempted something similar a couple of times, notably when Victor Wanyama put Hooper through on the goalkeeper. Randolph got his team out of trouble on that occasion, and would do so several more times throughout the match.
However, there was nothing the Ireland international could do about Celtic’s second goal, which came just three minutes later and again owed everything to intelligent movement both on and off the ball. Scott Brown is known for his energy and his willingness to cover a lot of ground, but even so, he is not usually expected to pop up on the left wing. He did so here, though, delivering a low cross towards Hooper which Adam Cummins cut out but could only divert into his own net.
The subject of a questionnaire in the match programme, the English teenager had been asked to name the first goal he scored as a professional. “I’ll tell you that in a few months,” was his reply. It is unlikely he will be prevailed upon to reminisce about this one quite so soon.
Indeed, the afternoon turned into something of a personal nightmare for Cummins, whose involvement ended not long into the second half, when he was shown a straight red card for tripping Commons as the playmaker threatened to race past him after latching on to another high ball. Captain Scott Brown stepped up to take the penalty, but his weak effort towards the right post was easily saved by Randolph.
Under other circumstances that incident might have inspired Motherwell to attempt a fightback, but having been under the cosh with 11 men on the park, they were wary about becoming too adventurous after being reduced to ten. Defender Fraser Kerr came on for midfielder Nicky Law to restore the back four to its full complement, but Stuart McCall’s side were still fortunate that they did not concede more goals as Celtic continued to dominate the second half.
Georgios Samaras came on for Brown and looked full of running, while Miku and Joe Ledley also came off the bench. Having shored up his defence, McCall then tried to freshen up the rest of his side by bringing on Omar Daley for Chris Humphrey and Henrik Ojamaa for Jamie Murphy, but neither man made any appreciable difference.
Besides Commons, Hooper and Forrest, Wanyama was also in fine form for Celtic, and Efe Ambrose looked assured at centre-back in his first league start for the club. Lennon himself singled out Emilio Izaguirre for praise, but the fact that so many Celtic players were worthy of commendation told its own story: here was a team who were a cut above their opponents in almost every department of the game.
The exception was goalkeeping, but that told its own tale too: Randolph had several outstanding saves, while Fraser Forster was hardly called into action at all, such was the control enjoyed by his back four.