CELTIC 2 MOTHERWELL 0
SCOTT SINCLAIR and Moussa Dembele were the marksmen as Celtic eased past Motherwell at Parkhead in a game that left Brendan Rodgers, his players and the fans more than slightly puzzled.
The question was: How on earth were there only two goals of a difference between the teams?
The champions have had landslide 7-0 and 5-0 victories over the Fir Park outfit in the past two meetings in the east end of Glasgow.
But, on a frustrating afternoon, they had to settle for two, despite running the show from almost start to finish with only the odd flurry from the visitors.
It looked as though there might be another avalanche when the Hoops took the lead in the 18th minute as Sinclair claimed his eighth strike of a sensational campaign.
The ball was fizzed over from the right, Dembele, unusually, had a fresh air swipe and there was Sinclair coming in from the left to first time an unstoppable drive beyond Craig Samson.
Remarkably, the Englishman’s goal was the 2,000th in the history of the Premier League.
Amazingly, it remained that way until three minutes from the end before the Hoops made certain of victory to keep them four points ahead of Aberdeen.
Samson, who had been just about flawless, gave away a penalty-kick when he raced from his line to the edge of the box to flatten Dembele.
It was an obvious spot-kick and the Frenchman dusted himself down before sending the ball past the keeper at his left for his 13th goal of the term.
The Hoops were always comfortably in control against visitors who must have contemplated safety-first tactics in a damage-limitation attempt even from the early stages of the encounter.
Sinclair looked in the mood and was lively and tricky as he threatened in his usual flamboyant fashion with his rollicking raids from the left.
Man-of-the-moment Dembele, the Premiership’s Player of the Month for September, was eager to get on the scoresheet, but was denied early on when he attempted a clever curling effort.
Samson anticipated his intentions and got across his line to repel the danger. And the Well goalie was also in line to stop an attempt from Erik Sviatchenko.
Mark McGhee’s team lived dangerously and were extremely fortunate not to lose at least two more goals before referee John Beaton gave them some much-needed respite when he blew for half-time.
Dembele and Kieran Tierney both left Samson helpless only to be denied by the woodwork.
The French Under-21 international hitman thought he had netted his 13th of the campaign when he cut in from the left and shifted the ball onto his right foot.
It looked a goal all the way as it swept beyond Samson, but the ball thudded against the upright and bounced to safety.
Then it was the turn of Tierney to clatter the frame of the goal with a wonderful attempt. The left-back skipped past two challenges before lashing the ball at goal.
Once more, the shotstopper was left helpless and, unfortunately, for the enterprising Scotland international defender, the effort thumped against the crossbar.
The one-way traffic continued after the turnaround and it was Samson who was the busiest man on the park as he did his best to defy the champions.
Scott Brown, the Hoops’ matchwinner against Dundee a fortnight ago, almost doubled his team’s advantage with a cunning effort early in the second period.
The skipper, on the edge of the box, elected to go for precision instead of power as he attempted to place the ball into the net.
Samson, though, stretched full-length to get a hand to the ball. It broke clear to the inrushing Dembele who fired it towards the net, but the Well hero managed to push that one to safety.
Craig Gordon was at last brought into action when the Parkhead No.1 dealt superbly with a header from Louis Moult in a rare breakaway.
Brendan Rodgers increased Celtic’s goal threat after introducing Leigh Griffiths and Patrick Roberts for Cristian Gamboa and Stuart Armstrong after the hour mark as the team swarmed down on the visitors’ rearguard.
It was incredible it remained at 1-0 for so long with Celtic dominating and defiant Samson standing between them and another embarrassing scoreline.
He demonstrated his qualities again when Dembele unselfishly set up Sinclair who sent it goalwards only to see it being blocked by the shotstopper.
Boss Rodgers took off James Forrest and sent on Kolo Toure in the 84th minute to make sure the back door was shut in the remaining minutes.
However, it was Celtic who doubled their lead when Dembele fired in the spot-kick to the joy – and relief – of the fans.
Bring on Borussia Monchengladbach on Wednesday!
TEAM: Gordon; Gamboa (sub: Griffiths 61), Simunovic, Sviatchenko, Tierney; Brown, Henderson; Forrest (sub: Toure 84), Armstrong (sub: Roberts 62), Sinclair; Dembele.