COMING from behind to snatch a point in stoppage time against the champions is a sensational result for a Motherwell side who continue to punch above their weight.
An absorbing contest in the Fir Park sunshine ended in a six-goal thriller that blew the race for second place in the Scottish Premiership wide open and exemplified just why the Steelmen are right in the thick of it.
Six first-team regulars may have been absent but it did not stop ‘Well from replicating a feat only AC Milan and Barcelona have managed this term – score three times in 90 minutes against Celtic.
The sprit and endeavour shown throughout typified the character and belief of their candid manager Stuart McCall, who continues to work wonders on a shoestring budget.
The former Rangers striker has plenty of football knowledge, he does his homework, he reads up on opponents and watches them in action weeks in advance.
Recovering from losing their top three scorers from last season was always going to be difficult but his shrewd methods of rebuilding with free transfers have come up trumps again.
It is no coincidence that Gordon Strachan handpicked McCall to be part of his Scotland coaching staff and Sheffield United came calling for his services when things went wrong for David Weir earlier in the season.
McCall’s honesty and wisdom shines through on his players in the shape of commitment and desire. The pictures from the home dressing room at half-time spoke volumes.
While Celtic players were stood on the pitch for four minutes with the stern words of Lennon ringing in their ears, McCall issued instructions with a measure of composure and persistently drilled the message to his players with the help of the tactics board.
The Steelmen went toe to toe with the best team in Scotland and could have emerged with a third win in the last four home games against Neil Lennon’s men on another day.
McCall’s tactical nouse was key to overcoming the Hoops twice last term, being brave in his system and taking risks when falling behind in both games.
Michael Higdon was the hero in their memorable victories last February and April and John Sutton, like he has done with his goalscoring feats all season, stepped into the breach.
The former Hearts frontman was a thorn in the side of a Hoops defence which has been solid all season but looked unsettled from the word go.
Lennon will bemoan some of his side’s defending as Efe Ambrose was bullied by the physical presence of Sutton and undone by the long ball in behind while Emilio Izaguirre caught out of position on numerous occasions.
Sutton simply did not give up on chasing down Craig Reid’s toss forward when Ambrose allowed it to sail over his head in the fourth minute.
The blame was apportioned with Fraser Forster, whose bearings were exposed when the weak effort slithered beyond his grasp.
Ambrose was particularly vulnerable, receiving an innocuous whack in the face from team-mate van Dijk for his troubles. But if it had the intention of giving him a wake-up call, it didn’t have the desired effect when at fault for the second goal.
It was almost a case of deja vu as van Dijk was static from Steven Hammell’s lofted ball and the defence could not regain their action stations.
Zaine Francis-Angol got his rewards for taking a gamble, continuing his burst into the box as the ricochet of Izaguirre fell into his path.
The two-goal cushion was the least that Motherwell deserved for their endeavour in the first half.
After throwing away a two-goal lead a fortnight ago at St Mirren, McCall was desperate to avoid another defeat and would have taken note of the way Celtic ran out comfortable winners at Tannadice by starting on the front foot and dominating possession.
The change of shape to a three-man defence was partly enforced as a result of the deepening injury crisis but made the middle of the park extremely compact.
In the absence of suspended skipper Keith Lasley, 18-year-old Jack Leitch was outstanding
Celtic came unstuck at Fir Park twice in 2012/13 and were heading down the same route but the worry for McCall was, when performing at a lacklustre level, their unrivalled ability to reach another gear can prove deadly.
On a day of drama in North Lanarkshire, the point could be crucial in the battle with Aberdeen and Dundee United.
The trip to Tannadice comes next week with the League Cup winners lying in wait in a potential winner-takes-all bout at Pittodrie on the final day.
Taking their financial constraints into account, a third consecutive European qualification would be a remarkable achievement for the Steelmen.
They may still have work to do and the odds might be against them but the humble presence and calming influence of McCall will ensure Motherwell will fight until the very end.
Michael Higdon celebrates against Celtic Image via Creative Commons License