Celtic 1-0 Motherwell: Gary Hooper and Fraser Forster sink Steelmen

CELTIC will go into the SPL winter break with a commanding nine-point lead at the top of the table after a hard-earned but merited victory over Motherwell which was secured by the considerable skills of their English stars at both ends of the pitch.

CELTIC will go into the SPL winter break with a commanding nine-point lead at the top of the table after a hard-earned but merited victory over Motherwell which was secured by the considerable skills of their English stars at both ends of the pitch.

Scorers: Celtic: Hooper (79)

Referee: S McLean

Attendance: 48,002

Gary Hooper secured the points for the champions with his 18th goal of the season with 11 minutes remaining, the striker’s contribution coming just two minutes after his compatriot Fraser Forster had brilliantly saved Tom Hatelely’s penalty kick which had presented the visitors with the chance to snatch a win that would have cut the gap at the SPL summit to three points.

There was little doubt Celtic deserved their success on the balance of play but not for the first time this season they were indebted to goalkeeper Forster whose form this season has earned him a place in the England squad.

Hooper is tipped to join him in Roy Hodgson’s plans and Celtic will hope he does so while still on their books as they attempt to pin him down on a new contract.

Celtic have started sluggishly in several of their home SPL fixtures this season but that was certainly not an accusation which could be levelled at them yesterday.

They simply flew out of the traps, swarming all over a Motherwell side who somehow managed to emerge unscathed from a blistering first ten minutes of pressure from the champions.

Kris Commons, back in the Celtic line-up for the first time since being injured in the Champions League win over Spartak Moscow last month, was deployed in a floating role behind front pair, Georgios Samaras and Hooper.

It was a combination which Motherwell struggled to come to terms with in that opening period.

Samaras had the ball in the net after just two minutes, only to be flagged offside, before Commons latched on to a smart Hooper lay-off and drilled a low 20-yard shot narrowly wide of Darren Randolph’s left-hand post.

The Motherwell goalkeeper was then called into action for the first time when he reacted superbly to keep out Hooper’s close-range shot. The ball broke to Commons, whose follow-up attempt was bravely blocked by Simon Ramsden. It was one-way traffic at this stage but Celtic were denied again when Charlie Mulgrew’s sweetly-struck free-kick from around 20 yards was diverted over the crossbar by Randolph’s stretching one-handed save.

Motherwell, skippered for the day by departing forward Jamie Murphy, finally managed to break Celtic’s early hold on proceedings when winger Chris Humphrey burst down the right on the counter-attack.

He attempted to pick out Murphy with his cross but Efe Ambrose stepped in to cut out the danger.

With Celtic unable to maintain the ferocious early pace they had set, Motherwell gradually clawed their way into the contest and Murphy would feel he should have put them in front in the 20th minute. Set up perfectly by Keith Lasley’s pass, Murphy lacked composure as he blazed a shot over from just inside the penalty area.

Celtic continued to dominate possession without creating openings as regularly as they had at the start of the match, although Ambrose came close to opening the scoring when he stabbed wide from close range after being picked out by Mulgrew’s free-kick.

Murphy, despite his earlier missed chance, was performing admirably in his final appearance for Motherwell and he came close to the breakthrough eight minutes before half-time when he jinked his way into the penalty area and curled a shot narrowly wide of Forster’s left-hand post.

But it was Celtic who finished the first-half in the ascendancy as they recaptured some of their earlier dynamism. Samaras saw a header cleared off the line by Ramsden, then forced Randolph into action with a low shot which the Irish goalkeeper held confidently.

Randolph was not as assured, however, in first-half stoppage time when he looked to have handed Celtic the lead. When Victor Wanyama headed a Mulgrew corner back across the six-yard box, Randolph fumbled the ball which dropped at the feet of Ambrose, who contrived to smash his shot over the crossbar from little more than three yards out.

The second-half was more evenly contested, although Celtic still generally controlled the tempo and momentum. Randolph recovered his poise to make fine saves from Samaras and Commons and Neil Lennon responded by replacing midfielder Beram Kayal with Tony Watt as he increased his team’s attacking options.

But the match looked to have swung dramatically in Motherwell’s favour when Kelvin Wilson tripped Murphy just inside the penalty area. After a considerable delay, in which both Wanyama and Forster were booked for dissent, it was Hatelely who took the spot kick. He struck it firmly enough to Forster’s right but the goalkeeper made a stunning one-handed save.

There was almost a sense of inevitability about Celtic’s response to their reprieve as they scored the only goal of the game with a tremendous counter-attacking move. Commons, Hooper and Samaras were all involved in the sweeping build-up down the left with the Greek international’s low cross slammed beyond Randolph from close range by Hooper.

Motherwell might have snatched an equaliser in the final minute, Lasley failing to connect properly with a header from Hateley’s corner, but Celtic saw out the win which makes their retention of the title seem more inevitable than ever.