Celtic 2 - 0 Motherwell: Champions maintain slender lead at the top

Odsonne Edouard opens the scoring for Celtic in their victory over Motherwell. Picture: SNS
Odsonne Edouard opens the scoring for Celtic in their victory over Motherwell. Picture: SNS
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It may have lacked the drama and lustre of their epic Europa League triumph in Rome three days earlier but Celtic secured a routine Premiership victory over Motherwell which, it its own way, was no less valuable or gratifying for manager Neil Lennon.

Odsonne Edouard’s 13th goal of the season set the Scottish champions on their way before Motherwell defender Richard Tait gave them a helping hand when he slammed the ball beyond his own goalkeeper in the second half.

Celtic’s perfect home league record was never seriously threatened by Stephen Robinson’s men who, while gritty and well organised, were unable to force home ‘keeper Fraser Forster into a solitary save all afternoon.

The margin of victory could have been greater for Lennon’s side but it was sufficient to keep them at the top of the table on goal difference, a single strike ahead of rivals Rangers who remain in hot pursuit.

It was an afternoon when Motherwell would have been nursing the hope they might face opponents still feeling the effects of their considerable exertions in defeating Lazio on Thursday night.

But there was no lack of energy or attacking intensity from Celtic for whom the retention of their league title remains the top priority this season.

The visitors’ defence, without captain Peter Hartley who called off with illness on Sunday morning, were quickly and fully occupied in dealing with the clever movement and variation of Celtic’s play.

There was an early and optimistic shout for a penalty from the hosts for handball against Devante Cole when the Motherwell striker blocked a free-kick from Jonny Hayes but referee Alan Muir was unimpressed.

Edouard, receiving the ball from Callum McGregor on the edge of the penalty area, was denied by a smart reaction save from Mark Gillespie in the sixth minute as Celtic began to establish control.

Robinson was also missing the services of his top scorer Liam Donnelly through suspension but, as when they lost narrowly at Ibrox a fortnight earlier when deploying a similar 3-5-2 system, his team were occasionally enterprising on the counter-attack.

Some slackness at the back from Celtic provided the first indication of a potential threat from Motherwell when Chris Long set up Cole for an effort from distance which slid just wide of Fraser Forster’s right hand post.

It required a brilliantly timed penalty box intervention from Declan Gallagher to deny Mohamed Elyounoussi a simple scoring opportunity after he had been played in by McGregor.

Motherwell responded with another decent raid which saw Allan Campbell unable to connect cleanly with Liam Polworth’s inviting cross in the 16th minute but just as the visitors were growing in confidence, they fell behind three minutes later.

Elyounoussi threaded a pass into the feet of James Forrest just inside the penalty area and in at attempt to clear, Gallagher saw the ball bounce off him straight into the path of Edouard. The striker didn’t need to be asked twice as he sent a rising shot beyond Gillespie.

To their credit, Motherwell didn’t appear too fazed by the setback and came agonisingly close to an equaliser in the 25th minute when the stretching Long was just inches away from converting Jake Carroll’s superb low cross from the left.

But despite that scare, Celtic were now in the ascendancy and only wastefulness in front of goal prevented them from adding to their lead before half-time.

Christopher Jullien saw a header deflected narrowly over from a Hayes corner, then Edouard should have done better when he scooped a shot over from close range after fine link-up work from Oliver Ntcham and Forrest.

Motherwell were struggling to contain Forrest at this stage and the winger set up another gilt-edged chance for Elyounoussi who lacked poise at the crucial moment as he blazed over from around 12 yards.

Gillespie did well to keep out a powerful snapshot from Hayes as Celtic finished the first half firmly on the front foot.

Any prospect Motherwell had of regrouping and then recovering was effectively ended by the self-inflicted wound of Tait’s own goal nine minutes into the second half.

Edouard held the ball up well before slipping a pass to Hayes who, for the umpteenth time, had overlapped down the left. The full-back fired over a low cross which Tait got to first and appeared poised to clear the danger. But he got his angles all wrong and could only divert the ball into his own net.

Jeremie Frimpong enjoyed another eye-catching outing for Celtic and the 18-year-old right-back saw a shot blocked by Carroll before Ntcham passed up the chance to add to his midweek heroics, the Rome match-winner tamely directing a shot at Gillespie after brilliant set-up play from Edouard.

A third goal eluded Celtic but this was a more than satisfactory day at the office for Lennon ahead of the latest international break.