CELTIC headed to the top of the Premiership table with a victory that was as easy as they chose to make it.
For long spells it never really seemed in doubt and with the majority of the pressure in a fairly one-sided match, they toyed with their hosts at times. But the fact they didn’t turn that into something more tangible will be the concern as they head to Norway on their latest Europa League sojourn.
They netted in the 15th minute, to give them the three points and elevate them to the top of the table but the fact that Nadir Ciftci, with only his second goal of the season, was the only scorer in a game which offered the Parkhead side so many more opportunities must have been a source of frustration for manager Ronny Deila.
After the match he insisted that, while he would have loved more goals, the victory was the important factor.
“I always want more goals to kill teams off and we should have done that. You know when you don’t do that then you will get trouble for a period of the game and we did.”
In fairness that trouble almost came from their own man as Efe Ambrose breathed a sigh of relief when a second-half swiped clearance threatened Craig Gordon’s goal in a way Motherwell had failed to.
“But I’m happy that we got three points,” said Deila. “We deserved it and played 70 minutes of good football. The first half was very dominant and at the level that we want to be. I’m very happy that we are back where I want to be and it puts us in a good position and now we just need to keep winning games and performing and develop ourselves and we have a very good chance to stay there.”
The ratio of goals and even clear cut chances compared to the wealth of possession might have been troubling if the team hadn’t managed to see out the win. But so too would the penalty claims which were surprisingly dismissed by referee Alan Muir. The most obvious was in the 59th minute when Kris Commons cut back to Ciftci, but Motherwell’s Kieran Kennedy stuck out a not-too-subtle hand to slap the ball away from him and deny him a clear opening. The defender cheekily claimed the referee had called it correctly but the look on his face suggested that not even he believed that.
“It is a big deal, of course it’s a big deal. It was clear handball,” said Deila, unwilling to let the official off the hook simply because his team had still triumphed. “There is 38 games and you give and take and hopefully it is going to even out. I have no problem with referees here in Scotland but sometimes they make mistakes as well and today they did that.”
“Was there two penalties I missed? Was it 3-0? Or did they miss them both? Oh right, they weren’t given, I see,” said Mark McGhee following the first match of his second incarnation as Motherwell boss, annoyed by the mention of the penalty shouts. “Look, you could go on all day talking about those sorts of things. There were fouls here and there. The fact is they got one goal and given the fact we lost it early doors, it wasn’t a bad effort that we only lost 1-0.”
Celtic could arguably have made it an embarrassing welcome back to Fir Park. From the fourth minute when Ciftci had a shot deflected off course, the champions were the team more likely to score. But there was a slackness in the final ball.
Captain Scott Brown tried to drive them on, pulling on his boots to play a leading role despite suffering a bruised ankle in training.“I said to the players in the dressing room afterwards that he is a role model for what hard work is. He was quite injured and his ankle was very swollen but he puts his boots on and goes out there. He is a leader by performance and shows what the attitude should be,” said McGhee
“We should have scored more goals as a team,” admitted Ciftci, who got on the end of one of the better build-ups. But even that had been protracted in its infancy. With Stuart Armstrong and Emilio Izaguirre in space on the left it took an age to work the ball across to them. When they did pick out Armstrong, he slipped his full-back on the overlap. Commons’ initial shot from the cross was parried but the striker found the net with the follow-up.
“It felt like I’d never been away,” joked McGhee. “We got booed off at half-time and we got booed when we made substitutions so I felt at home. Look, I can only incrementally do what I’m doing. Hopefully there will be improvement in the coming weeks. We’ve got work to do but we’ll do it right.”