Motherwell 0 Celtic 2
John Hartson and Alan Thompson gift-wrapped an eight-point Christmas lead over Rangers for Martin O’Neill as Celtic returned to form with a comfortable victory at Fir Park.
The Glasgow giants had been suffering from a European hangover from their defeat in Lyon with a far-from-convincing win over Dundee and a CIS Insurance Cup defeat at the hands of Hibernian.
But they picked themselves up to inflict the fourth consecutive defeat on Terry Butcher’s youngsters.
Celtic always looked in command even though Robert Douglas, who continued in place of Magnus Hedman, had to save a controversial Derek Adams penalty to keep them ahead.
They made the perfect start by taking the lead after only two minutes.
The visitors could have been ahead moments earlier but Gordon Marshall spared Stephen Craigan’s blushes by saving his poor attempted clearance from Thompson’s cross.
But the goalkeeper had no chance seconds later as Scott Leitch got a slight deflection on Chris Sutton’s cross, after Thompson’s pass, and Hartson arrived at the back post to poke the ball into the back of the net from two yards out.
It could have got even worse for Motherwell in the fifth minute as Sutton got on the end of Stanislav Varga’s long ball far too easily but he fired straight at a relieved Marshall.
The goalkeeper was again fortunate in the 12th minute when Hartson headed Varga’s cross into his hands.
Motherwell were hanging on as Sutton fired into the side-netting after Liam Miller had charged down Martyn Corrigan’s clearance.
But the home side fought back and Johan Mjallby needed to head Leitch’s cross behind to prevent Adams from reaching it.
The Motherwell midfielder then came within inches of scoring the equaliser as his free-kick, out near the corner flag, caught Douglas by surprise and came crashing back off the bar.
The same played then curled a 22--yard free-kick just past the upright after Bobo Balde was booked for a foul on Leitch.
Keith Lasley was the next man to be booked before Motherwell youngster David Clarkson won his side a dubious penalty.
Mjallby won the ball as the player hit the deck but justice was done as Douglas acrobatically saved Adams’ spot-kick by flinging out his left hand to stop the ball going over him.
Referee John Underhill again angered the visitors by booking Larsson for diving after going down under the challenge of Craigan in the box before ignoring the same player’s clumsy barge from behind on Hartson.
At the other end Clarkson embarrassed Balde by going past him with ease but he then shot wide with just Douglas to beat.
Celtic were dealt a blow just five minutes before the interval as Larsson, who along with Hartson and Sutton shrugged off injury to play, trudged off to be replaced by Jamie Smith.
Motherwell started the second half much better than the first and Alex Burns should have done better in the 48th minute.
Steven Hammell and Stephen Pearson combined to release the former Partick striker into space inside the box but he got caught in two minds and his weak shot was saved by Douglas.
But Marshall gifted Celtic the ideal chance to kill Motherwell off in the 55th minute.
He made a hash of Miller’s cross by pushing it straight to Smith, who controlled it and then blazed over the crossbar.
But Celtic did wrap up the points in the 71st minute after Craigan had been booked for a foul on Petrov, just outside the box, and Thompson stepped up to curl a superb left-foot effort over the wall and into the corner of the net.
The Englishman’s confidence was high and his audacious long-range drive was comfortably saved by Marshall two minutes later.
Douglas showed he too was concentrating despite a lack of action when he tipped Adams’ powerful strike over the top.
The referee was also enjoying himself and he needlessly booked Miller for a challenge on Adams.
But nothing could stop Celtic from enjoying Christmas with an eight-point gap over Rangers.