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Celtic 1 Motherwell 0: Solid foundations provide platform for success

THIS was a hard shift with another brick being hoisted on to the increasingly substantial building that is Celtic's playing record this season.

Celtic 1 Motherwell 0
Celtic 1 Motherwell 0

Much was properly made of the defeat of Motherwell being a record 20th successive victory in home competitions for the champions elect. However, a casual perusal of a series of statistics brings a human dimension to the achievement by Neil Lennon and his side.

Fraser Forster has conceded five goals in this run and no more than one a match. His saves have been crucially important in protecting Celtic's record and driving them towards a certain title and a possible treble.

The convincing form of Thomas Rogne is also bolstered by a keek at the record book. The 21-year-old defender, who will make his international debut for Norway against Northern Ireland this week, was thrown back into the side against Rangers on December 28. Celtic have lost one league goal since and that a splendid shot from Dundee United's John Rankin from the edge of the area.

Rogne has always been a player whose potential was held in high regard by Lennon. There was concern that the defender could be bullied and he has had matches that reinforced that fear, most particularly the League Cup final against Rangers last season when he was given a torrid time by Nikica Jelavic and, occasionally, Kyle Lafferty. That match ended for the youngster when he was substituted on 73 minutes.

Eleven months on, Rogne looks a more assured, more physical player. He was central to Celtic's win on Saturday.

This may seem an outlandish statement given that Motherwell's attacking play was so limited that Forster had only one save to make and that a comfortable one from Henrik Ojamaa with 12 minutes remaining.

But the major reason for this bluntness was the manner in which Rogne subdued Michael Higdon to the point of ineffectuality. The big Fir Park striker is the focal point of Stuart McCall's attacking plans. The centre-forward is there to flick on headers to the pacy Ojamma or hold up the ball for Jamie Murphy to join play in the final third. Rogne won almost every header, was the clear winner in every grappling match with Higdon and even had the time and pace to nullify Ojamaa.

He was helped by another Celtic defender who has been burned by the fire of an Old Firm match. Kelvin Wilson was poor when Celtic capitulated at Ibrox in September. The Englishman has recovered both his fitness and his form to bring a solidity and stability to Celtic's defence.

His pace has always been conspicuous but Wilson now regularly displays a keen anticipation, the mark of the best defenders. He is also a worker, particularly keen to cover for his full-backs.

Rogne and Wilson gave Celtic the platform on which to construct another three points that will in all likelihood lead to a first Clydesdale Bank Premier League title for Lennon. Motherwell, disciplined and organised, did not allow their opponents any room and there was a flatness to Celtic's performance. James Forrest, who is scheduled to start for Scotland against Slovenia, never moved from the starting blocks against Motherwell.

His comparative youth and the massive contribution he has made to Celtic this season protects him from any further censure. Ki Sung-Yueng was unable to force his imprint on to the match and now heads for South Korea to play against Kuwait. He will miss next week's league match at Aberdeen, not returning to Scotland until the Monday. The travelling takes its toll on the 22-year-old who underwent checks in hospital on a previous trip to play for the national team. He said the rigours of long-distance flights across time zones had played a major part in making him ill.

"I was playing two games a week for a while and then I went to Korea, to Japan, a lot of journeys. European players never experience this kind of thing," he said.

Ki now surrenders a starting place in a Celtic side that has options in midfield. Scott Brown's thigh injury should not keep him out for long, Joe Ledley is in good form and Victor Wanyama is another reason for the paucity of chances given to the opposition. With Forrest, Commons and Paddy McCourt also available, the South Korean could be forgiven for travelling with some trepidation.

However, he is sure to play a part in a month that will shape Celtic's season. After a trip to Aberdeen, they face Dundee United in the William Hill Scottish Cup before taking on Kilmarnock in the Scottish Communities League Cup final.

Gary Hooper, unburdened with any international duty, will be called upon to supply the goals that would bring a domestic treble into sharp focus. His smart finish after Georgios Samaras chested down an Adam Mattews long throw on 59 minutes, demonstrated again his importance to the side.

But the stocky Englishman knows that 20-match runs are a team effort and, though they must be franked with goals, they start in defence.

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