Phil McGhee at Celtic Park
A brave Motherwell returned from Celtic Park empty handed after losing out to a Gary Hooper goal eleven minutes from time.
Having withstood a whirlwind opening ten minutes from the home side, Stuart McCall’s men contributed greatly to an open match which could have gone either way.
Indeed had Tom Hateley not been denied from the penalty spot by a fabulous save from Fraser Forster fifteen minutes from time, ‘Well might have taken all three points to reduce the gap at the top.
It was appropriate that the two on form teams met in the first match of the New Year in a top of the table clash.
Injury and tactics forced ‘Well into two changes. Shaun Hutchison failed to overcome his hamstring injury and Fraser Kerr partnered Simon Ramsden at the back with Tom Hateley deployed in front of a back three.
Michael Higdon started on the bench as McCall preferred the speed and movement of Jamie Murphy and Henrik Ojamaa up front. In what is likely to be his last appearance in a Motherwell jersey Murphy had the honour of wearing the captain’s armband.
Having finished Saturday’s game laying siege to Kilmarnock’s goal, ‘Well started this one on the receiving end of a phenomenal opening from the hosts. For fully ten minutes the visitors failed to get out of their own half as the Parkhead side pressed for the opening goal.
And Motherwell could have conceded a few as Samaras nodded home from an offside position before Darren Randolph had great saves to deny Hooper, Charlie Mulgrew and Kris Commons.
It was eleven minutes before Chris Humphrey broke upfield but having raced past Emilio Izaguirre, Commons slid in to guide the ball back to his ‘keeper.
Gradually the intensity of the home side’s attacks decreased as Motherwell found time and space on the ball.
The visitors also started to find some gaps in the home rearguard and Murphy’s low drive from the edge of the box forced the first save from Foster after 37 minutes.
A minute later Motherwell created their best chance of the half when Murphy slipped the ball past Kayal at the angle of the box but with a gap emerging to the Foster’s left he curled the ball beyond the keeper and post.
Having worked their way back into the game the Fir Park side almost conceded a cheap goal on the stroke of half-time. Mulgrew’s corner was headed back into the six yard box by Victor Wanyama. It looked a comfortable catch for Randolph but he let the ball slip from his grasp and was greatly relived as Efe Ambrose from a couple of yards hoofed the ball over the bar. The big keeper deserved the bit of luck given his performance to that point.
Five minutes after the break slack defending in the home side allowed Zaine Francis-Angol’s cross to find its way to Murphy but his snap shot was blocked by Wilson.
As Celtic flirted around the ‘Well goal, Kerr produced some timely blocks and Randoph a couple of routine saves.
With 20 minutes remaining Motherwell continued to look comfortable in possession after a steady build up Hateley flashed a shot wide from 25 yards.
As the game opened up for both sides Celtic brought on Tony Watt, who made such an impact when he came on at Fir Park last season.
But it was Motherwell who had the best chance to break the deadlock after Kelvin Wilson tripped Murphy as he dragged the ball into the box. With regular taker Higdon on the bench and Murphy having missed the last penalty, Hateley stepped forward.
A bit of gamesmanship from Forster earned him a booking but it paid off when the ‘keeper threw himself to the right to brilliantly beat away what was a well struck penalty from Hateley.
Motherwell paid the ultimate penalty three minutes later when Celtic grabbed the only goal of the game. Georgios Samaras sped down the left and when he squared the ball across the six yard line Hooper prodded it under Randolph.
‘Well refused to lie down though and they might have had a second penalty. A great one – two with Ojamaa sent Murphy through only to fall as he raced past the keeper, with Celtic relieved as the referee awarded a corner.
It was all Motherwell in the closing stages and the introduction of Omar Daley and Bob McHugh put more pressure on the home defence and Keith Lasley passed up a couple of half chances as the clock wound down.
Significantly it was nervous groans from the home fans as the fourth official signalled four additional minutes. However, Motherwell couldn’t grab the equaliser they deserved and captain for the day Jamie Murphy was left to take an emotional bow in front of the pocket of travelling fans.
[tab:As it happened]
Ally Reilly at Celtic Park
FT: Celtic 1 – 0 Motherwell
90mins: 4mins added on
83mins: Celtic subs: Rogne and McGeough on for Commons and Ambrose. Daley and McHugh on for Ojamaa and Francis-Angol too
79mins: GOAL: Hooper makes it 1-0, Gutting for the Steelmen.
PENALTY!!!! Missed by Hateley!!! Good save from Forster though!
71mins: Celtic sub, Watt on for Kayal
58mins: Up the other end Kayal drags his 25 yard effort just past,
56mins: Good footwork from Lasley on the edge of the box creates some space. Just leaning back as he shoots so it goes straight over.
50mins: Uncertainty there as Ambrose and Wilson both leave the ball to each other. Murphy nicks in but his shot is blocked
46mins: Second half underway.
45mins: HT Celtic 0 – 0 Motherwell
37mins: Murphy skips past Ambrose and tries to place his shot into the bottom right hand corner. Just past!
30mins: Having survived that first 15 minute bombardment, ‘Well are getting a little more possession and looking more comfortable
23mins: Just to update, Celtic still on top, 3g connection still terrible!
20mins: First half chance of the game falls to Murphy. Blazes his half volley well over the bar from 18 yards though
15mins: Samaras has been at the heart of most of Celtics attacks and this time the Greek scoops well over the bar from 16 yards
8mins: Randolph has to tip Mulgrew’s close free-kick just over the bar!
6mins: Samaras finds Hooper unmarked at the front post but he aims straight at Randolph. Good stop from the Irishman.
5mins: Commons is set-up on the edge of the box by Hooper. He goes for power and drags his shot just past.
2mins: Samaras has the ball in the net but the linesman has his flag up!
1min: Celtic kick the action off! #SIWY #COYW
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall:
“The writing was on the wall when we missed the penalty. With Forster, when you look at him in goal, if he goes the right way, he’s such a big frame.”
“I think it’s a great save. It [Hateley’s penalty] is quite high, I don’t know how far in the corner it was.
“Then we had a good shout for a second penalty. Jamie says Forster’s brought him down, but you won’t get two here.
“I am really proud of the way we played, especially second half. The first 20 minutes we were a bit nervous and edgy.
“But we grew into the game and I thought for good spells in the second half we had chances and opportunities which we don’t normally get here.
“I thought with the blocks we got and the defending, all round it was just a really good spirited effort and [I’m] bitterly disappointed not to get something from the game.”
Celtic coach Gary Parker:
“We’ve played very well, we created a number of chances. We just couldn’t break them down – they defended well.
“We had 18 shots on goal and we broke them down late on. We deserved the goal and we deserved the three points.”
“We just wanted to win the game and go nine points clear. We’ve got that game in hand over Inverness and we’ve just got to keep going and winning games.
“Everybody’s beating everybody – we lost last week, so it’s difficult.
“They’ve played a lot of football, we’ve had a lot of games. We’re in a position where we want to be and it’s a good time to have a break.”