There is nothing that Brendan Rodgers has seemed unable to do in Scottish football across the past year. It is a period that has brought an unprecedented double treble and, in recent days, a seventh straight domestic honour. Winning at Fir Park, though, is proving more difficult than racking up the momentous, it would seem.
Having drawn both encounters at the ground last season, the Scottish champions looked to have cracked one of their toughest nuts in leading 1-0 through an early Ryan Christie goal when the final two minutes of normal time rolled around last night. But Stephen Robinson’s grafting side refused to let the odds - and several setbacks along the way last night - proved fatal to their hopes of an unlikely point. And Danny Johnson ensured their valour was rewarded when he produced an imperious strike in the closing seconds. The forward did so by cutting inside from the right and guiding a low diagonal drive into the far corner from 14 yards that was low and true.
A 1-0 is that most dangerous of scorelines but when Motherwell struck it was being acclaimed with cries of “we shall not be moved” from a Celtic support then convinced their team was about to go top of the league courtesy of an Aberdeen win away to Rangers. Johnson choked that chant in their throats, and his impact was to push Celtic below new Premiership pacesetters Kilmarnock.
An incredulous scenario when the gulf between Rodgers and the rest in Scottish football tends not just to exhibit itself in trophy spoils. Team sheets can prove telling too. A matter of days after a Betfred Cup success that claimed them a seventh straight domestic honour, Rodgers was able to make seven changes to his starting line-up. In itself, perhaps not arresting. What certainly proved so was that it left his Fir Park counterpart Robinson pondering whether the rejigged side was actually stronger than the one fielded at Hampden.
With James Forrest rested and Dedryck Boyata lost to injury, Jonny Hayes and Jozo Simunovic were drafted in as replacements. They would hardly be placed in the same bracket. But giving captain Scott Brown a first start since October, and preferring Olivier Ntcham, Leigh Griffiths and Craig Gordon to Scott Sinclair, Odsonne Edouard and Scott Bain would hardly be expected to prefigure a drop-off in capability.
Once the inevitably full-blooded proceedings began, it was enforced shuffling in the ranks of the home side that claimed attention. Losing to Livingston at the weekend on the back of thumping Aberdeen indicated the wildly contrasting fortunes being experienced by the Lanarkshire side. Inside five minutes, the portents suggested a downer of an evening, with captain Peter Hartley hirpling off to be replaced by Andy Rose. Little more than a quarter of an hour in, they had lost a second player to injury when Liam Donnelly had to give way to Adam Livingstone.
Serious blows, these booked one of the fully body variety, and the performer who administered it was almost predictable. There have been many career turnaround over which to marvel across the years in Scottish football, but it is difficult to think of any to match the astonishing gear shift that Ryan Christie has applied to his career.
The Betfred Cup final match winner appears to now possess such a Midas touch, the golden-plated finish he forged to put his team ahead after 13 minutes seemed of a standard hallmark.
The reality was it was nothing less than another exquisite piece of driving forward play and delightful touch. Kieran Tierney provided the set-up with a piercing run down the left, before sliding a ball inside. Christie seized on it like a bloodhound on the scent of a hare, slicing through the home backline by controlling the ball with his right before caressing a left foot effort to scoop the ball wide of Mark Gillespie.
After Motherwell then battled back, and demonstrated an ability to provide Celtic with uncomfortable moments without ever cutting them open, it was Christie’s wiles six minutes from half-time that should have offered the platform for Rodgers’ men to make their lead unassailable.
The Scotland international hustled his way to the byline, where he was surrounded by claret and amber jerseys. He stood strong at the edge of the box as he attempted to wriggle his way free, only for Rose to prove clumsy and barge him over. Referee Kevin Clancy was decisive in blowing for a penalty, and the protests from a delegation of Motherwell players proved revealing in their half-heartedness.
A second penalty for Celtic inside four days, it didn’t not share the unmerited nature of the spot-kick that came their way against Aberdeen at the national stadium. It did though prove to be just as insignificant, however, with Griffiths’ evening exemplified by Gillespie superbly throwing himself to his left to deny the striker, before clawing away the follow-up as it looked as if Griffiths had homed in to make amends.
The harem-scarem nature of the tussle in the first period gave way to a second period that was more mundane. The arrival of Scott Sinclair in place of a Ntcham who had never looked at ease in a wide left role, allowed Celtic to raid regularly down the left, but Robinson’s men stood firm.
They never allowed themselves to be counted out, with the switch of Edouard for Griffiths and later Tom Rogic for Hayes, not providing the visitors with the impetus to remove the shackles. Such endeavour brought a dramatic climax.
And that most dangerous of scorelines proved exactly that to Celtic when a courageous Motherwell forced an opportunity from a diagonal ball that Johnston need no second invitation to bury. In that instant the cries of “we shall not be moved” from a Celtic support then convinced their team was about to go top of the league courtesy of an Aberdeen win away to Rangers were choked in their throats.