CELTIC will take a cushion with them on their winter break to Marbella next week.
A plump, comforting nine-point cushion to be exact. The Clydesdale Bank Premier League goes into cold storage after this evening's Edinburgh derby and does so with the champions in an ideal position from which to retain their title.
Their first appearance of 2013 was as fraught as many that have preceded it this season but Celtic somehow found a way to dig out the victory that strengthens their position at the top of the table. They will take some shifting when the league gets going again towards the end of the month.
Not for the first time they had Fraser Forster and Gary Hooper to thank for the victory. Had the goalkeeper not dived the right way to brilliantly keep out Tom Hateley's well-struck penalty after 76 minutes with the game still scoreless, then Celtic's escape to the sun might not have felt quite so relaxing.
A Motherwell victory would have shrunk Celtic's lead to just three points and given hope to the chasing pack, but Forster's stop meant this would again be a frustrating afternoon for the Fir Park side. They have now won only once at Celtic Park in their last 23 appearances.
Buoyed by the penalty save, Celtic went on to find what proved to be the winning goal just four minutes later. Hooper started the move, shuffling the ball out wide to Georgios Samaras, who funnelled a return pass to the Englishman to clip a shot beyond Darren Randolph for his 18th goal of the season. The queue of clubs reportedly interested in signing Hooper grows ever longer – Chris Hughton, the Norwich City manager, was among the crowd yesterday – but Celtic will hope that the lure of a Champions League last-16 tie against Juventus will persuade the player to stay, until the summer at least.
One player definitely moving on from Scottish football is Jamie Murphy. The forward started for Motherwell yesterday, as his manager Stuart McCall had insisted he would, despite being on the brink of a move to Sheffield United. It seemed an unnecessary risk on the part of both clubs but Murphy, who also captained the side, came through the 90 minutes unscathed and will now complete the formalities with the League One club.
After a slow start, Murphy gradually became more influential in the game, scooping one first-half chance over the crossbar and sliding another just wide of Forster's post. It was he who also won Motherwell's penalty, drawing a rash tackle from Kelvin Wilson, only for Forster to keep out the resultant kick, while a second claim was turned down. "You don't get two here," lamented McCall afterwards. "It's just like Old Trafford that way."
This was the sort of game to get tactical obsessives worked up into a froth. Celtic's shape was a variation of a 4-3-3, with Samaras stationed primarily wide on the left, Hooper centrally and the returning Kris Commons just in behind him. Motherwell countered with a three-man defence, Hateley positioned just in front of them to pick up Commons, and an attacking trident who darted about busily. The respective systems seemed to suit Celtic better initially – they dominated the first 20 minutes or so – before Motherwell adjusted and came more into it, even if most of their forward play still came on the counter attack.
It was something of a surprise that Celtic did not convert such dominance into an early goal, with Commons – making his first appearance in almost a month – looking particularly vibrant. Only poor finishing and some inspired goalkeeping from Randolph kept the champions out, as Motherwell held firm under a welter of pressure.
Commons slid a chance just wide and had another saved, Randolph touched over Charlie Mulgrew's swerving free kick, before Samaras lost his composure and thrashed a shot so high over the crossbar it was in danger of troubling passing aircraft.
Motherwell survived it all only to nearly fall behind right before half-time courtesy of a defensive blooper. Victor Wanyama's header from Mulgrew's corner seemed to be falling into Randolph's arms but the goalkeeper juggled the simple catch and the ball dropped invitingly for Efe Ambrose. Perhaps taken aback by Randolph's error, the Nigerian could only batter his volley high over the crossbar.
Motherwell, by this point, had at least managed to escape their own half on a couple of occasions, but too often they were over-elaborate within range of goal. It left Forster with next to nothing to do but did induce a slight sense of unease among the Celtic support, one exacerbated by their own team's struggle to make their superiority tell at the other end. That sense of frustration grew throughout the second half. Celtic were still creating chances – Randolph blocked a Samaras shot at his near post, then grabbed a Commons effort at the second attempt – but there was little of the urgency that had been the hallmark of their opening forays.
The tone would change inside four frantic minutes late in the game as Forster saved from Hateley and Hooper made Motherwell pay.