The Clydesdale Bank Premier League table shows Celtic are just a single point clear at the top as the contest enters its third month. The illusion of a tight race is as misleading as the surface Celtic will play on in Moscow tomorrow night. From high up in the stands it looks like grass, but it is artificial.
Spartak Moscow away in game two of their Champions League group campaign is the hardest match Celtic have faced so far this season.
"Nobody gives us a chance. I think everybody expects to us to get beaten in every game," said James Forrest. "But we did well against Benfica and hopefully we can keep surprising teams."
Lord knows to which doom-mongers young Forrest has been exposed – who predicted Celtic would lose all six games? – but it is certainly true that avoiding defeat tomorrow will be the most demanding assignment they have faced in this campaign. Benfica are probably stronger than Spartak Moscow, but playing in Glasgow and away in Russia are different matters.
Tomorrow night will test the confidence Celtic have constructed with four fine performances in a row, drawing with Benfica before ploughing through Dundee, Raith Rovers and Motherwell, games in which they scored eight goals and conceded only one. Victory corrected what everyone else must reluctantly accept as the oddity of a league table without the division's clearly superior team at the top of it.
Their day at Motherwell was impressive on several counts, not least the composition of their list of substitutes – Georgios Samaras, Joe Ledley, Biram Kayal and Miku Fedor were among the reserves. The starting team itself was packed with experience. And Adam Matthews, Lassad Nouioui, Thomas Rogne and Anthony Stokes will be available tomorrow after injury. No Clydesdale Bank Premier League team can hope to cope with Celtic's resources.
If Craig Levein does not this week pick Kris Commons in his Scotland squad he will have to explain what problem he has with him, because on form there is no decision to make. The idea of him being seventh or eighth in line is risible.
Commons was endlessly bright and inventive against Motherwell, the quality of his searching pass for the opening goal being matched only by Gary Hooper's exquisite first touch and finish. There is a strong claim that Commons should start against Wales a week on Friday, let alone wonder whether he will be with the squad at all.
Commons and Forrest were clever movers behind and either side of Hooper in a fluid 4-3-3 which made a mess of Motherwell's young defence. Celtic had 18 shots during the game compared to Motherwell's three.
"This is the first time this season we've played with that formation and it really paid off," said Forrest. "It helped me I wasn't set in one position, I was allowed to move about. It's harder to be marked. The attacking players were able to go and do what they wanted, and we created a lot of chances."
When another strong Celtic performer – Emilio Izaguirre, who had been overdue a good game – picked out Scott Brown, the captain's low cross was turned into his own net by Adam Cummins. The defender was anxious about Hooper having a tap-in and unwittingly beat him to it. Given that Cummins was sent off for denying Commons a clear goalscoring opportunity nine minutes into the second half the only puzzle was why Celtic scored only twice. Brown struck a weak penalty at Darren Randolph but the goalkeeper was entitled to some mercy given the enormous contribution he made to keep things respectable. Motherwell would have been buried under half a dozen goals without him.
"I've played in many games where a 1-0 or 2-0 can quite quickly turn into a five or six," said midfielder, Keith Lasley. "You don't want to be coming off the park having been beaten by that – 2-0 is a lot better than getting hammered."
People have long since learned not to expect much from Motherwell against either side of the Old Firm – they have not beaten Rangers in the last 39 attempts and now have just one win in the last 19 against Celtic – but it is doubtful that any Premier League side could have lived with them on Saturday. They moved top of the league for the first time this season and it is difficult to see them relinquishing it at any point in the rest of the campaign.
"It is going to be difficult because nobody wants Celtic just to steamroller everybody and run away with it," said Lasley. "It's up to us and the other teams to try to prevent that. If you look at the bigger picture, the size of squad Celtic have and the quality they have, I think they were always going to be top of the league. It's not being negative from our point of view, it's just a reality."
The match was Celtic's first away league game with a 3pm kick-off since 2005, a fact their supporters grumbled about via a banner. On this evidence it could be another seven years until the next. Celtic are to television what they were to Motherwell: impossible to resist.
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