Motherwell 1 Celtic 1
The swirls and eddies of this improbable Scottish title campaign left Kilmarnock at the top of the table almost midway through the race, after Celtic fumbled a chance to regain the leadership when they were held to a draw by a dogged Motherwell display at Fir Park to set up an intriguing afternoon on Saturday, when the Rugby Park side meet the Hoops in the east end of Glasgow.
Motherwell dug deep for their reward. They trailed early after Ryan Christie netted his sixth goal in nine games but were saved from falling 2-0 behind when Leigh Griffiths had his penalty kick saved on the brink of the interval and their tenacity paid off in the closing moments with an equaliser from a delightful drive by Danny Johnson that clipped the far post on its way into the net.
Having played and won a Europa League tie in Norway last Thursday and the first cup final of the season at Hampden Park on Sunday, Brendan Rodgers drilled into the depth of strength in his squad by making seven changes to the side who beat Aberdeen to lift a seventh successive trophy. In came Craig Gordon, Cristian Gamboa, Jozo Simunovic, Olivier Ntcham, Scott Brown, Jonny Hayes and Leigh Griffiths.
Those who stepped aside were Scott Bain, Mikael Lustig, Dedryck Boyata, James Forrest, Tom Rogic, Scott Sinclair and Odsonne Edouard. Steven Robinson’s response to their 2-0 weekend at Livingston amounted to three personnel switches, with Christan Mbulu, Barry Maguire and Curtis Main replaced by Carl McHugh, Tom Aldred and Danny Johnson and they were forced into another rearrangement when Peter Hartley limped off after five minutes, with Andy Rose filling the gap.
With Trevor Carson out for the season because of deep vein thrombosis, the goalkeeper’s jersey went to Mark Gillespie, whose name was associated with one of Rodgers’ few less successful episodes when he played for the Carlisle United team who held Liverpool to a 1-1 draw in the League Cup a few days before Jurgen Klopp took over at Anfield. It was Gillespie, though, who had to be alert to avoid embarrassment when his opposite number tried to chip him from a free kick deep inside the Celtic half, but he took Gordon’s audacious effort comfortably.
The Motherwell keeper did not enjoy the same latitude in the 13th minute when Brown and Kieran Tierney combined to find Christie unmarked inside the home box, where he opened his body out and curled a delightful finish around Gillespie. Motherwell had paid the price for not adjusting fully to Hartley’s departure of the disruption when Liam Donnelly became another casualty and had to make way for Adam Livingston.
That said, Christie was creating turbulence almost at will and, five minutes before the break, was brought down by Rose inside the box for a penalty kick which Griffiths commandeered. The striker, though, saw his effort beaten out by Gillespie, who then punched the rebounding ball away from Griffiths’ outstretched boot.
The restart marked the arrival of Sinclair for Ntcham, a deployment which kept the pressure on Motherwell but the main source of amusement for the travelling support was the misfortune of Rangers, trailing 1-0 at home to Aberdeen and reduced to 10 men by their eighth red card of the season, shown to the reliably temperamental Alfredo Morelos.
An additional novelty was witnessed as the proceedings moved into the final 20 minutes as Motherwell subbed their substitute, with Main coming on for Livingstone, a welcome token of ambition from Stephen Robinson. It seemed that the Steelmen’s best chance of parity had come to nothing when Conor Sammon bore down unchecked on the Celtic box only to shoot straight at Gordon – but Johnson had yet to play his ace.
Motherwell (3-5-2): Gillespie; McHugh, Hartley (Rose 5), Aldred; Grimshaw, Donnelly (Livingstone 15), Turnbull, Campbell, Tait; Sammon, Johnson; Subs (unused): Ferguson (g), Main, Bowman, Bigirimana, Gorrin. Booked: Livingston, Campbell, Johnson.
Celtic (4-3-2-1):Gordon; Gamboa, Simunovic, Benkovic, Tierney; Brown, Ntcham (Sinclair h-t); Christie, McGregor, Hayes; Griffiths (Edouard 67). Subs (unused): Bain (g), Izaguirre, Hendry, Rogic, Forrest.
Referee: Kevin Clancy.