Brendan Rodgers’ side looked all at sea in defence as first-class finishing by Louis Moult gave Motherwell a 2-0 half-time lead. In shipping a third in the second period, they leaked as many league goals on Saturday as they had in their previous eight Premiership encounters.
It never felt that Moussa Dembele would be the player to turn it around for Celtic, the form of the 20-year-old French forward having dropped several levels from his peak of two months ago. With Scott Sinclair injured and Leigh Griffiths absent with illness, it was left to Callum McGregor and Stuart Armstrong – both in terms of goalscoring and energy and enterprise provided – to make telling impacts, two Scottish players who do not carry the same aura for opponents as their cosmopolitan team-mates.
Yet, Motherwell centre-back Stephen McManus, a former Celtic captain, would see one obvious issue with reading into this that there can be a Scottish resistance to a seeming unstoppable march of his old club to a domestic clean sweep. “You’ve seen our qualities, you’ve seen Celtic’s qualities, you’ve seen our frailties, you’ve seen theirs and they can be got at, of course they can. But ultimately we’ve lost the game,” he said.
Indeed, whatever Celtic’s shortcomings – and there were plenty in defence with Kolo Toure deputising for the ill Erik Sviatchenko – and however much they did not look like a side that had not conceded a goal in eight consecutive domestic assignments, they found a way to win. Such vulnerabilities may force them to assume the Motherwell role in their Champions League dead rubber away to Manchester City tomorrow, but the two worlds that Celtic have been operating in this season cannot be compared.
Not least because, when Moult produced a stunning arcing volley from a McManus ball over the top in three minutes, incredibly it made for the first time that Celtic had been behind in an away Premiership game this campaign. Rodgers spoke about it “ticking a box” in his team dealing with so perilous a situation in the home front.
And with Tom Rogic’s 90th minute imperious low strike to win a titanic, topsy-turvy game that will long be remembered – and which produced three goals in 142 seconds from the 70th minute to shift the scoreline from 2-1 to Motherwell to 3-3 – Celtic’s potential to be unbeatable in Scotland seemed strengthened.
The Betfred League Cup final success last week was gifted-wrapped by an ornate display by matchwinner James Forrest. Rogic, as he did in Lanarkshire, regularly slips into that role. At various points of this season, Dembele, Sinclair and Griffiths have claimed it as their own. Equally, as the pair did along with fellow scorer Patrick Roberts at Fir Park, Armstrong and McGregor can chip in with vital contributions.
Ultimately, Celtic have so many matchwinners even on their off days – as Saturday was for 45 minutes – they have the weapons to blast their way out of trouble. McManus believes they have one at the top that outguns all others.
“What Brendan Rodgers has got just now is that the players are buying into everything their manager says and you can see that. He’s a top, top manager. We tried to stamp our authority on it. We worked tremendously hard, were brave in possession, we kept it and made chances. We took them.
“We forced them to make a substitution after 20 minutes or whatever [Emilio Izaguirre withdrawn for McGregor after half an hour]. But Brendan is very good, you can see that in the way his team is set up. He then changed the formation which, in the second half, was difficult for us to deal with.”
Rodgers moved McGregor forward from fill-in left-back to switch from a back four to back three, with a midfield diamond in front of them and the pitch stretched with three attackers. The modifications altered the entire complexion of the encounter.
Some days, we are grateful for an off-field rammy because there has been so little to go on within the football. Saturday was not one of them but we got a classic fall-out anyway, with Celtic asistant Chris Davies and the Motherwell bench going for one another at full-time.
That resulted in McGhee effectively calling Davies a nobody – “I don’t even know his name” – and saying Celtic’s backroom staff “weren’t really Celtic quality in terms of their behaviour”. Rodgers retorted by saying McGhee’s actions “weren’t befitting the assistant manager of the national team”, with Celtic’s coaching team narked by McGhee telling them they could not use the pitch for pre-match warm-ups. All rather unseemly, it was so far removed from the thrillathon that preceded it.