MOTHERWELL 0 CELTIC 1
CHAMPIONS Celtic are back in pole position after this hard-fought, narrow victory over Motherwell at Fir Park – but, once again, it was far removed from champagne football.
A 15th minute goal from comeback Bhoy Nadir Ciftci proved to be the difference between the clubs and that was enough to see the Hoops leapfrog Aberdeen by two points.
Ronny Deila’s men were also denied two second-half penalty-kicks by referee Alan Muir in controversial circumstances. A goal at those stages would have certainly lifted the pressure off the players.
But they toiled to put down a marker in this confrontation and Well keeper Connor Ripley will certainly face tougher afternoons in the course of the campaign.
The midfield rarely clicked and Tom Rogic was disappointing with his touch deserting him at crucial moments. Nir Bitton limped off near the end and must be a doubt for Thursday’s Europa League tie against Molde in Norway.
Skipper Scott Brown put in his usual hard-driving performance, but Ciftci, in the 59 minutes he was on the pitch, and his replacement Leigh Griffiths didn’t receive the service they might have expected.
The only goal arrived in a rare moment of invention from a surprisingly lethargic Hoops team considering there was a place at the top of the league as a prize.
Stuart Armstrong swept a nice ball out to Emilio Izaguirre, rampaging down the left wing. The Honduran picked out Kris Commons smack in front of goal and he smashed an effort towards the net. Ripley managed to get in the way of the shot and pushed it sideways.
Fortunately, Ciftci had anticipated the play and pounced on the rebound to thump it into the unguarded corner of the net.
But the assault on the Well goal didn’t materialise although Celtic were forcing corner-kick after corner-kick, mainly on the left, but they were providing little danger to Ripley and Co.
In the 24th minute, Commons worked a neat free-kick with Rogic about 30 yards out before unleashing a left-foot screamer. It was too straight, though, and the keeper could tip it over the bar with a fair degree of confidence.
There was another clever move eight minutes later with Rogic, Bitton and Armstrong involved, but it ended with the Aussie blasting the ball well off target.
Two minutes from the interval, Tyler Blackett picked out Dedryck Boyata with an inviting left-wing cross and the former Manchester City central defender got plenty of power behind his angled 12-yard header, but, unfortunately, it thundered beyond Ripley’s right-hand post with the goalie rooted to the spot.
Six minutes after the turnaround, Mark McGhee’s side survived the first of two valid-looking penalty claims. Brown was poised to race onto a square pass from Commons when he was clumsily felled by Kieran Kennedy.
The midfielder was sent sprawling, but the match official wasn’t convinced and waved play on.
Seven minutes later, referee Muir’s eyesight was called into question when the same Motherwell defender clearly handled a header across goal by Commons which was zooming towards the menacing Ciftci.
Certainly, it was no accident and Kennedy, at least, had the good grace to look guilty as the referee failed to spot the obvious infringement and again raced away from the incident.
Just before the hour mark, Griffiths replaced Ciftci, who failed to spark, but, to be fair, wasn’t given the best of service. Seven minutes later, Gary Mackay-Stevens came on for Armstrong.
Bitton signalled to the bench he might be in trouble and he was withdrawn in the 76th minute with Callum McGregor coming on.
Two minutes later, Deila and McGhee had a heated exchange of words when Scott McDonald hammered into Efe Ambrose and left him in a heap on the touchline. This time the referee got it right and booked the little Aussie.
In fact, when McDonald came on as a substitute, he became the fourth ex-Celtic player in the Well ranks, joining Stephen McManus, Joe Chalmers and Stephen Pearson.
In the 82nd minute, Commons took a heavy touch after being sent clear through the middle with a defence-shredding pass from Boyata and Ripley was given the opportunity to get out and flop on the ball.
And near the end, Commons summed up the performance when he was awarded a free-kick after a crude challenge from McManus about 25 yards out. Griffiths wanted to take it, but the midfielder insisted and promptly ballooned a shot high, wide and anything but handsome.
Looking on the bright side, Celtic are back on top of the Premiership.
TEAM: Gordon; Ambrose, Boyata, Blackett, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton (sub: McGregor 76); Commons, Rogic, Armstrong (sub: Mackay-Steven 66); Ciftci (sub: Griffiths 59).