In a curious sort of encounter, the moment that made the most lasting impression wasn’t either of the Celtic goals – their 2-0 win representing a moral victory for a besieged and boyish Motherwell – it was the standing ovation accorded to Kieran Tierney just before half-time.
An electrifying run, composed of jinks, feints, darts, that took him past a trio of opponents, gave the Scotland left back a sighting of goal that he responded to by ripping an effort towards Craig Samson from 14 yards. It deserved a goal, but instead battered off the crossbar. Yet, within an instant the home supporters in the 54,159 had risen to acclaim the 19-year-old, who spent much of the first half rampaging towards the edge of the visitors’ box.
At times in the first period, Celtic players queued up to have pops at the excellent Samson as if they were in line at a fairground coconut shy. Yet, thanks to a stoic strategy from Mark McGhee that owed much to the loss of 12 goals without reply in their previous two visits to Glasgow’s east end, Motherwell remained in the encounter until the closing minutes. They trailed by only one goal at that stage – James Forrest slid the ball across from right, Moussa Dembele had a fresh air swipe, and that led to it rolling into the path of Scott Sinclair, who chopped a shot high into net.
With Celtic frustrated by Samson and the goal frame on a handful of occasions, McGhee could be content with his team’s efforts given that he handed teenagers Jack McMillan and Ross McLean their first starts, while another novice, David Ferguson, appeared from the bench.
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, meanwhile, could be satisfied with the moments of dynamism that were opposed by the Fir Park side’s doggedness, plenty provided by Tierney.
“Everyone respects how committed he is and he’s showing the growing confidence in him,” the Irishman said. “What I love about Kieran is first and foremost he’s a defender. He’s aggressive, he gets up to people, he blocks, he tackles. He’s fearless in that way but he’s showing that extra bit of quality now on the ball. He’s getting good experiences, playing against better players and being more consistent and confident. That dribble was absolutely brilliant and unfortunate it never went in. He was excellent again today.”
Rodgers was equally effusive in his praise of Dembele, who sealed the victory with an 86th minute penalty that he won down to sheer force of will. A ball knocked forward by Scott Brown seemed as if it would dribble through to Samson, but the Frenchman chased it down to force the Motherwell keeper into an injudicious challenge that resulted in a spot-kick Dembele converted for his 13th goal of the season.
“I said to the players before the game, for us to succeed it is not just about us being hungry it is about us being starving,” Rodgers said. “You have to really really push yourself the moment when you think things are gone. You have to fight. That was just a perfect example of the spirit in the team, in that they will chase everything. They are going to run, they are going to work. That looked like it was dead, it was going to go through to the keeper but Moussa made it something and the best strikers do that in my experience. They make something out of nothing. His endeavour, quality and mindset made that and he tucked it away really well.”
It was a day for Motherwell to get through while avoiding any collateral damage. McGhee considered that they did that and more. “Coming here I felt very strongly that we couldn’t just match what they do, so we tried to come up with something different,” he said. “We played what in essence was a 4-2-2-2, allowed their full-backs to have the ball and come on to us, and hopefully we could attack down the sides. It worked to an extent, it certainly made us very difficult to beat.
“We ended up with two 18-year-olds, a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old who have hardly got half a dozen games between them if they’ve even got that, and it was a great experience for them to stand up to it and to do so well.”
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