Celtic - Hooper 32, Cummins 35 (og)
IN the aftermath, Stuart McCall eulogised Celtic’s attacking play, the movement of their front players so rapid and so elusive that the Motherwell manager’s eyes were still practically darting about in their sockets half an hour after this sobering experience had come to an end.
Celtic fly to Moscow today. When they get there they’ll have more trouble finding their bags on the carousel than they had finding space at Fir Park. The only surprise was that they won by just two goals. For that they can look to Scott Brown, who missed a penalty for the second Saturday in a row, and Darren Randolph, who made a number of other big saves for the beleaguered and now former table-toppers.
Neil Lennon’s side lead the SPL for the first time this season. In fairness, the table has been a lie these past weeks and this was the day we had indisputable proof of it, not that it was needed. The movement that McCall, and Lennon, both raved about was supplied by a front three of Kris Commons, the string-puller, James Forrest, the dervish and Gary Hooper, the finisher now returned to top form with six goals in his last three games. “They were fantastic,” said McCall. “When they play like that, nobody in the league will live with them. We saw a rampant Celtic. We were comprehensively beaten by an outstanding side.” There wasn’t much to say beyond that. McCall’s conference was short and sharp. He came, he gave praise and he left.
Following their beating at Ibrox on Wednesday night we might have expected some kind of reaction from Motherwell, but it never came because Celtic never let it come. In fairness, anybody with a grasp on the recent history between these two teams might have known what was going to happen. Motherwell had one win in 18 matches against Celtic coming into this and had lost their last six against Lennon’s team, scoring just the one goal.
So their prospects were bleak and got bleaker still when Lennon posted his team sheet. It wasn’t so much the guys who began the game that might have made Motherwell gulp – Efe Ambrose made his first SPL start – but the guys that Lennon had in reserve in the event of things going pear-shaped. On the bench he had Georgios Samaras, Tony Watt, Miku, Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal but, by the time the first of them made their entrance the game was done and dusted. Celtic were 2-0 ahead by the 35th minute and we could have packed our bags and gone home at that point because the contest was over.
“We were brilliant, from start to finish,” said Lennon, who reckoned this was the best performance by a Celtic team at Fir Park since he arrived at the club many moons ago. “I’m a little annoyed that we didn’t make it more comfortable for ourselves [by scoring more goals], but we had pace all over the pitch. Our movement was great. We were able to get down the sides and get in round the back of them. We isolated their centre-halves.”
Lennon singled out Emilio Izaguirre for praise and, no question, the full-back played better than he has done for some considerable time. It was up front where the action was, though. Commons bossed it.
Craig Levein is naming his latest Scotland squad this week and if Commons isn’t in it then the already much-maligned national manager might as well wear a Coco the Clown costume to his press conference because there is no justification for the Celtic playmaker to be omitted again. He was excellent yesterday.
“We’re getting into that debate again,” said Lennon when asked about Commons and Scotland. “I don’t pick the squad. Craig has made it clear that there’s a raft of players ahead of him.” If that’s still Levein’s position, it will be a nonsense.
This has been Hooper’s week. One against Dundee last weekend, four on Tuesday night against Raith Rovers and another here, an emphatic finish after Commons dropped a ball over the head of Shaun Hutchinson and into the striker’s path. Hooper thrashed his shot low to Randolph’s right hand side. He may have taken a while to get going this season, but we can say with some certainty now that Hooper is up and running.
Motherwell’s lights went out entirely three minutes later when they put the ball in their own net, Izaguirre finding Brown on the left and the midfielder whipping in a cross that Cummins poked past his goalkeeper.
Celtic kept their tempo up, which was impressive. Motherwell didn’t have a single shot on target all day because they barely had the ball long enough to get a shot. They were deeply fortunate not to fall further goals behind, Brown missing a penalty after Commons was pulled down by Cummins, who got a red card for his troubles.
Brown’s penalty was weak, a contrast to the rest of his game which was strong. Randolph had no problem beating it away.
After two failed attempts, Brown has been now been sacked from his spot-kick duties.
“There’s a big debate going on in the dressing room about who’s going to take the next one,” said Lennon. “There’s a big queue. Big Fraser [Forster] has even put his hand up.
It’s not a major deal for me. The important thing was that we were really motivated.
“Losing to St Johnstone [the weekend before their last Champions League tie against Benfica] was a lesson learned. There was a bit of an inexperience in Perth, a bit of naivety, a feeling that they wanted to stay unscathed for the Champions League game coming up.
“There’s been a big change in attitude. Plus Motherwell were top of the league.”
The emphasis was on the ‘were’. Next stop, Moscow, with virtually a clean bill of health apart from Adam Matthews who rolled his ankle in training on Friday. Celtic will travel in good spirits.
MAN OF THE MATCH Kris Commons (Celtic) Bright and clever for Celtic. All eyes now turn to Craig Levein. Surely he can’t ignore him again…
TALKING POINT The re-emergence of Emilio Izaguirre. The Honduran has been average for a long time but was impressive here.
Referee: I Brines. Attendance: 10,496