Before the international break, their cloak of invincibility in the cinch Premiership slipped with a surprise 2-0 defeat by St Mirren and by the time they took the pitch next, title rivals Rangers – who they thumped 4-0 not so long ago – had bridged the five-point gap to go above them ahead of Saturday’s league hosting of Motherwell.
Gloomy Glasgow skies greeted Celtic, knowing Rangers had just walloped Hearts in Edinburgh, and this was an uncomfortable afternoon for Ange Postecoglou’s team – even if they did pick up three points and move back to the summit.
The 2-1 win over the Steelmen was not straightforward. Celtic were more disjointed, more lax with their passing and for moments in the match looked uneasy under pressure from their spirited guests. Yet, like all champions do, they rode out the storms that came their way and found a way to win.
Postecoglou was without his first-choice centre-back pairing of Cameron Carter-Vickers and Carl Starfelt. Their deputies, Moritz Jenz and Stephen Welsh, had unconvincing spells and will need to be sharper if called upon next week in the Champions League against RB Leipzig. Chances were missed, especially in the second half. There was visible legginess from many of the players who represented their countries during the past fortnight. Their captain was sent off. And then there was the most comic of own goals from Josip Juranovic that will feature on the blooper catalogue for years to come.
The first ten minutes of the match gave us an indication that Celtic were not at their best. The crowd grumbled at the standard of passing. Motherwell were tenacious and organised. Manager Steven Hammell has steadied the ship after a rocky summer.
Nevertheless, Celtic opened the scoring on 15 minutes. Jota – one man who wasn’t away on international duty – made it with a lovely clipped cross from the left. Matt O’Riley’s header was blocked by goalkeeper Liam Kelly and while the ball might have crept over the line without Kyogo Furuhashi’s intervention, the Japanese made sure.
Celtic did not make much headway thereafter, bar a 36th-minute Juranovic free-kick that splattered off the bar, and just a minute later, they ceded their lead in slapstick circumstances.
Blair Spittal sent a hopeful ball into the box following a corner and as Hart moved to the right of his goal to collect it, Juranovic – clearly unaware of his team-mate’s positioning – chested the ball back towards goal. Hart tried desperately to stop it trundling over the line, but couldn’t quite make it. Motherwell had their equaliser.
Frustration continued to coarse around Celtic Park in the second half. The effort levels were there but the quality was lacking. A moment of ingenuity was needed.
It came via Reo Hatate and Jota on 64 minutes. What a little assist king the Portuguese is. He rolled a corner to the Japanese midfielder and his dipping shot found the corner of Kelly’s goal. Relief for Celtic.
Furuhashi missed a good chance to give breathing space not long after and Motherwell sensed they could still get something out of this. The consternation-ometer went up again on 89 minutes when Ross Tierney pounced on a short pass, forcing Callum McGregor to haul him down as he strode towards goal. Referee John Beaton sent the Celtic skipper off.
It was too late for Motherwell to find a leveller, though. Full time came not long after. The sun was back out at Celtic Park, the champions back on top of the league. Postecoglou and Co will happily bank the points, forget about this one and move on.