A dramatic late strike from John Sutton gave Motherwell a share of the spoils in an enthralling 3-3 Scottish Premiership encounter against champions Celtic at Fir Park.
Motherwell 3 - 3 Celtic
SCORERS: Motherwell; Sutton 4, 90, Francis-Angol 44; Celtic; Stokes 45, Samaras 55, Griffiths 85
At Fir Park
JUST when it looked like their paucity of player resources was going to cost Motherwell defeat, up popped late substitute Lionel Ainsworth to play a vital role in the home side’s injury-time equaliser.
They were 2-3 down to substitute Leigh Griffiths’ 85th minute strike, and many of the Steelmen were rusting, when manager Stuart McCall sent on Ainsworth and Craig Moore for the impressive Jack Leitch and Henri Anier.
McCall’s choice on the bench was limited to mainly young players with little game time, but he plumped for the experience of the much-travelled Englishman and it proved a superb substitution.
After he got in behind Emilio Izaguirre, Ainsworth’s sheer pace took him clear into the Celtic box, and with Efe Ambrose and Virgil van Dijk stranded, Ainsworth sent a pinpoint low cross to John Sutton who coolly side-footed the ball home to grab a share of the points.
It gives Motherwell real hope that they can finish second, especially if they beat Dundee United at Tannadice next weekend, though their final match against second-placed Aberdeen at Pittodrie will most likely decide the runners-up spot.
Moving on to 89 points with four games remaining, Celtic will not now match the 103-point total achieved under Martin O’Neill, but the champions can still break the 100-point barrier if they win all their remaining encounters.
Play as they did in the second half and it is very achievable, but play as listlessly as they did in the first half and they might struggle to break 90.
Motherwell were without suspended captain Keith Lasley, meaning former Celt Stephen McManus surpassed his total of appearances for the season. James McFadden was still injured but Shaun Hutchinson returned in defence.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon gave a first start to John Herron and the 20-year-old midfielder from Coatbridge played at right-back where he showed some nice two-footed touches and great willingness to get involved, but was occasionally naïve. He was not out of place, though, and is certainly one for the future.
Celtic started on the attack, Georgios Samaras’s curling shot just going over, but it was a false dawn for the champions who went behind after just four minutes. Fraser
Forster, Kris Commons and Virgil van Dijk have all just been nominated for the Players’ Player of the Year award but all three blotted their copybooks in the first half.
Forster was first, though only after Efe Ambrose had made a not untypical error, allowing Sutton to pounce on his failed clearance of McManus’ long ball, the brother of former Celtic hero Chris hitting a less than perfect volley with his left foot, only for Forster to allow the ball to squirm under his body. Celtic then proceeded to dominate the half in terms of territory and possession, but there was a curiously aimless quality to their play and Motherwell’s bus-parking tactics appeared to work, while their breakouts were fast – Henri Anier should have done better when Beram Kayal presented him with a chance to shoot.
Next of the nominated trio to mess up was Commons. Anthony Stokes worked a one-two and when the Irishman turned in the penalty box, Ian Vigurs felled him for a penalty that referee Craig Thomson awarded from point-blank range.
Leading goalscorer Commons hit the penalty low and hard but Gunnar Nielsen saved brilliantly to his left.
When Motherwell attacked they looked dangerous, Sutton heading one effort wide before another Ambrose fankle gave Leitch the chance to shoot from 25 yards, the ball going just over.
As half-time approached, Van Dijk failed to clear properly and the ball went off Izaguirre to the lurking Zane Francis-Angol who made no mistake. In injury time at the end of the half, Motherwell seemed to have Stokes cornered, but he chipped the ball quite magnificently into the far corner of Nielsen’s goal.
Celtic began the second half clearly on the hunt for the equaliser, and it wasn’t long in coming, though Motherwell were first to threaten, Kayal clearing Sutton’s goalbound header off the line.
Nine minutes into the half, it was all square. Commons won a throw-in on the right wing, and took it himself, his long effort causing havoc in the defence before Stokes slammed a volley into the ground and Samaras stuck out a leg to score past the helpless Nielsen.
Leigh Griffiths came on for Kayal after 65 minutes, the swap of striker for midfielder showing Neil Lennon wanted to win, an impression that was emphasised when Amido Balde later replaced the tiring Herron.
Motherwell then had their own spell of pressure, with some fine close passing gaining them territory and chances, but van Dijk was now his usual masterly self and kept the Celtic defence together.
In a great series of end-to-end attacks, Commons blasted over from ten yards while Forster saved superbly from Anier, before Samaras seemed to handle in his own box, but referee Thomson waved that away.
Griffiths had already seen one shot blocked by colleague Balde before Stokes’ shot came off Vigurs into the striker’s path and he buried what everyone thought was Celtic’s winner. The troubled striker then got himself booked for his celebration.
Thinking the game was won, the champions switched off and Sutton’s cool finish from Ainsworth’s cross punished their hubris.