For a second successive Sunday, Celtic found themselves involved in a contest where a team reduced to 10 men rallied themselves impressively to secure a favourable result against the odds.
This time around, the shoe was on the other foot for the Scottish champions. Having beaten Rangers 3-2 while a man down last week, they were forced to settle for a draw against a gritty Motherwell side who had Cedric Kipre controversially sent off by referee Craig Thomson four minutes before half-time.
Even before kick-off yesterday, Thomson’s approval rating among Motherwell supporters was already at the kind of level which would have political pundits predicting an electoral wipe out for any party unfortunate enough to be polling such low numbers.
He did nothing to improve his status in their eyes when he gave Kipre his marching orders when the French defender flicked a retaliatory boot towards Celtic captain Scott Brown. It was the fifth red card Thomson has shown to a Motherwell player this season and the second to Kipre who was also sent off in the Betfred Cup Final against Celtic at Hampden in November.
To the great credit of Stephen Robinson’s team, they refused to feel sorry for themselves and dug in for a point which maintains their hopes of overhauling Hearts in the race for a place in the top six of the Premiership.
After the heady nature of their Old Firm triumph at Ibrox, this was a flat performance from Celtic but perhaps understandable in the circumstances. They are now 10 points clear at the top of the table, with a game in hand, as they close in on a seventh consecutive title.
Kipre’s dismissal came towards the end of an opening 45 minutes in which Motherwell had caused some real moments of concern for a reshuffled Celtic defence.
With Kieran Tierney sidelined by a calf injury which will also rule him out of Scotland duty during the international break, Callum McGregor was deployed on the left of a back four which saw Jack Hendry in the other full-back role.
The central pairing of Kristoffer Ajer and Dedryck Boyata displayed occasional signs of uncertainty and vulnerability which offered plenty of encouragement for Robinson’s side.
Scott Bain, retaining his place in goal for Celtic after his impressive debut at Ibrox the previous Sunday, was the busier ‘keeper in the first half.
He had no difficulty in clutching a 22 yard shot from Chris Cadden but was extended fully to keep out a well directed header from Curtis Main after Boyata completely misjudged the flight of Elliot Frear’s cross.
Motherwell found another gap in the Celtic defence when Main knocked the ball down into the path of strike partner Ryan Bowman whose shot was too close to Bain to cause him any great anxiety.
Celtic were struggling to find any fluency on a difficult Fir Park playing surface but Hendry might have done better than scuff a shot wide of the target after getting on the end of Olivier Ntcham’s corner.
Motherwell continued to play with a directness and tempo which allowed them to ask questions of any hesitancy in the visitors’ backline. There was more work for Bain to do when he threw himself to his right to save a thunderous 30 yard free-kick from Main, before Motherwell threatened again when Hendry reacted smartly to block a shot from Frear.
James Forrest looked the most menacing outlet for Celtic in an attacking sense and the winger forced Trevor Carson into his first notable save of the afternoon in the 29th minute. Tom Rogic found Forrest on the right and he weaved his way into the penalty area and saw his shot smartly diverted wide by the Motherwell ‘keeper.
Motherwell responded by fashioning another opening which Richard Tait volleyed wildly over but the hosts saw their attempts to build real momentum stalled by the red card for Kipre.
The big defender, having conceded a free-kick with a foul on Brown, reacted to a shove from the Celtic captain by flicking out a boot at him. Referee Thomson reached for his top pocket immediately and was in no doubt it was a sending-off offence.
Motherwell’s sense of injustice had to be quickly replaced by a focus on how they would attempt to cope with being short-handed for the rest of the contest. Predictably enough, they found themselves hemmed into their own half for long spells of the second half with Carson’s workload increasing significantly.
He made a comfortable save to keep out Forrest’s outside of the boot attempt to guide a shot beyond him, then made two far more difficult stops to deny efforts from Rogic who was growing ever more influential in proceedings.
For all of the dominance of possession and territory they were enjoying, however, Celtic still remained below the standards of sharpness and creativity set under Brendan Rodgers.
He sent on Scott Sinclair and Stuart Armstrong in a bid to inject greater purpose and penetration to his side, then played his final card with the introduction of Patrick Roberts. The on-loan Manchester City winger, sidelined since November by injury, almost made the breakthrough with eight minutes remaining when his shot from around 22 yards smacked off the top of Carson’s crossbar.
It would have been exceptionally harsh on Motherwell to lose it now, having defended so heroically, but they had to survive two more close calls. After the home side had a penalty claim turned down when Main went down under a challenge from Hendry, Sinclair should have scored on the resulting counter attack in the 89th minute but delayed his shot which allowed Tait to get in a crucial block. The final act saw Carson make his finest save of the afternoon in stoppage time when he touched over Moussa Dembele’s close range header.
MOTHERWELL: Carson, Kipre, Aldred, Dunne; Tait, Cadden, McHugh, Campbell, Frear (Hendrie 69); Main, Bowman. Subs not used: Griffiths, Bigirimana, Petravicius, Newell, Turnbull, Maguire.
CELTIC: Bain, Hendry, Ajer, Boyata, McGregor; Brown, Ntcham (Armstrong 60); Forrest (Roberts 68), Rogic, Edouard (Sinclair 60); Dembele. Subs not used: De Vries, Lustig, Compper, Musonda.