Celtic 3 - 0 Motherwell: Lennon’s men shake off their Champions League blues
Champions return to league action with a routine victory
While the Champions League now seems to bring only turbulence and discord for Celtic, their domestic assignments will invariably offer them safe haven.
So it proved yet again as Wednesday night’s European misery against Ferencvaros was followed by an ultimately comprehensive and routine Premiership victory over Motherwell.
It took Neil Lennon’s side time to hit their stride but from the moment James Forrest put them ahead, the outcome was never really in doubt. Further strikes by substitute Albian Ajeti and defender Christopher Jullien sealed the deal for the Scottish champions as they look to track the early pace being set in the title race by Rangers.
Forrest’s first goal of the season soothed what might have become an increasing sense of agitation in Celtic’s play when it gave them the breakthrough five minutes before the interval.
Lennon’s men had struggled up until then to create any clear-cut opportunities against an impressively robust and diligent Motherwell defence.
Once again, the Celtic manager had decided that their pursuit of goals would have to be undertaken without the presence of a recognised striker. With Odsonne Edouard still ruled out by a thigh injury, Ajeti and Patryk Klimala were once more deemed only worthy of places among the substitutes as Lennon stuck with the starting line-up which had lost to Ferencvaros four days earlier.
It left Ryan Christie occupying the “false nine” position, occasionally drifting wider when Olivier Ntcham took up a more advanced role. While Celtic dictated the tempo and dominated possession, they were often reduced to delivering hopeful crosses which Motherwell dealt with gratefully.
Mohamed Elyounoussi flashed a snap shot well over before Ntcham dragged an effort just wide of Trevor Carson’s right hand post as Celtic were largely restricted to efforts from distance.
While Motherwell spent most of their time on the back foot, there was an irony in the visitors’ team selection by which they went with two strikers in the shape of Chris Long and former Celtic man Tony Watt.
It was an indication of their willingness to show attacking ambition whenever possible and it needed a good tackle inside the penalty area by Jullien to prevent Long getting a shot away after Mark O’Hara had taken advantage of a sloppy loss of possession by Celtic captain Scott Brown.
Celtic goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas then had to scramble less than convincingly to his right to bundle a shot by Liam Grimshaw wide for a corner under pressure from Long.
The hosts were soon back in command and it took a fine piece of defending by Grimshaw on the edge of the six-yard box to stop Forrest getting on the end of a dangerous cross by Callum McGregor.
Brown was booked for a cynical foul on Bevis Mugabe after the Ugandan defender had surged out of his own half to spark a threatening counter attack.
Allan Campbell was perhaps fortunate to escape a yellow card when he halted Forrest in similarly premeditated style and Celtic were unable to exact any further punishment with the free-kick which Christie blazed well over the top.
Motherwell’s game plan looked set to take them into the break with a stalemate which was more than satisfactory from their perspective. But they finally let their guard slip for Forrest’s opener.
As Celtic broke up a Motherwell attack, McGregor led the charge with a thrusting run down the left from inside his own half. He picked out Forrest’s supporting run on the right and as the winger jostled his way into the penalty area, Motherwell defender Rickie Lamie chose to stand off him. Forrest needed no further encouragement as he arrowed a right-foot shot around Lamie and beyond the right hand of Carson into the corner of the net.
Motherwell had a half chance to grab an equaliser in first-half stoppage time when Stephen O’Donnell’s cross found its way to Watt but the angle was too tight for the striker to seriously trouble Barkas.
Celtic began the second half with Klimala introduced to replace Elyounoussi, giving the £3.5 million Polish front man an opportunity to show his omission from the starting 11 was an error on Lennon’s part. But Klimala did nothing to add to the credibility of that claim when, with his first sight of goal, he executed a fresh-air swipe at the ball when Greg Taylor flashed it low across the six-yard box.
Brown lived dangerously with a clumsy foul on Campbell which several Motherwell players indicated to referee Don Robertson might have been worthy of a second yellow card.
It was scrappy fare and while Motherwell were scarcely carrying any attacking menace now, Celtic were eager for the insurance of a second goal. It duly came their way from Ajeti, only three minutes after the £5 million recruit from West Ham United had replaced Ntcham.
He had already been denied an even quicker impact when a tremendous block by Declan Gallagher stopped him getting on the end of a cross from fellow substitute Jeremie Frimpong.
But Ajeti found all the time and space he needed to double Celtic’s lead when he controlled a pass from Kristoffer Ajer with a sharp first touch before guiding a right-foot shot beyond Carson from ten yards.
Klimala squandered another glorious chance to get his name on the scoresheet when he was sent clear on goal, his shot lacking conviction and too close to Carson who made a decent save.
Forrest was unfortunate to see a shot hit the crossbar as Celtic continued to look for the bigger margin of victory their dominance deserved. They were finally rewarded in stoppage time when Jullien popped up on the left of the penalty area to receive a Frimpong pass and steer a left-foot shot across Carson into the far corner of the net.
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