Stupendous, scatty and see-saw, it felt like there were about half a dozen games in the course of the afternoon’s events that Celtic and Motherwell contrived to serve up.
It was like one of those multi-stranded narratives so beloved in popular culture by the time Tom Rogic produced one of his typically immaculate driven finishes to seal a 16th win from a 17-game unbeaten domestic start to the season for last weekend’s Betfred League Cup winners.
Across the first 45 minutes, the story of the contest seemed like it would be Motherwell’s magnificence channelled through two two exquisite volleyed finishes from Louis Moult that seemed to leave Brendan Rodgers facing down a first defeat by Scottish opponents. Moult’s first was the first time Celtic’s goal had been breached on the home front in 781 minutes.
The vulnerabilities of a backline missing Erik Sviatchenko through illness seemed the tale then; and more specifically the hapless nature of Kolo Toure in his first senior appearance in 45 days.
Then, with Celtic transformed post-interval – switching to a back three and finding an instant reply from substitute Callum McGregor – it appeared the focus of the bonkers afternoon would shift to the three goals in 142 seconds midway through the period that swung a 2-1 lead in the home side’s favour to a 3-3. A frenzied period in which Patrick Roberts headed an equaliser at the back post, Lionel Ainsworth thumped in a cross from a similar area at the other end having just arrived on the pitch, before Stuart Armstrong spun round and hooked a low shot into the corner of the net for the goal McGhee felt turned the encounter.
Yet with the argy-bargy between Celtic assistant Chris Davies and the Motherwell management team at the conclusion of hostilities it had yet one more headline act. One that Rodgers forlornly hoped would not overshadow his team’s ability to overcome their gravest domestic predicament with finesse and footballing nous that eventually tore the Lanarkshire side apart.
“That isn’t the story of the game. The story of the game is that my team were brilliant second half,” said the Celtic manager. “Give credit to Motherwell, they did well first half and exploited our back four but we showed a great mentality to come back. I’m delighted for them because, again, it’s another box ticked in terms of being asked a question, coming from 2-0 down to win.
“It’s probably the most pleasing game we’ve had domestically, because to be that adverse situation, we haven’t had it before and it was going to be a real challenge for us. So to come out with a win, you see the joy in the supporters, you’re trying to put out a team they’re proud of and by the end they were very happy. They appreciate the fight and spirit we foster in the team.”
Rodgers admitted his side was “very poor defensively” early on. “We gave too much space, our two centre-halves weren’t aggressive enough. The young boy Moult was very good, coming underneath, spinning in behind, and we never dealt with him.” His first goal Rodgers declared “sublime”, a 50-yard arcing diagonal ball from Stephen McManus dropping over Toure’s head and then being dispatched by an inch-perfect airborne chip that left Craig Gordon beaten for the first time in a domestic game since September. Moult made it 2-0 in 36 minutes by directing, with one touch, an inviting Ross MacLean cross from the left that eluded Toure in at the far post.
The complexion off the game changed when McGregor sleekly wriggled his way inside the area and exchanged passes with Stuart Armstrong before steering a low drive in at the far corner and, but for Ainsworth’s score, the serious chances stacked up at the home end.
“It was a fantastic game,” said McGhee. “When you come to play a team like Celtic with the way they are at the moment you want to compete. We wanted to have a go and I think we did just that.
“Our first half performance was fantastic. We knew they would come at us in the second half and that’s what happened. Brendan would have been saying to his players that we’re a team that concedes goals.” Celtic are a side that, against Scottish rivals, continue to offer no significant concessions.