Against Sparta Prague in the Europa League on Thursday, Celtic were humiliated by a 4-1 thrashing which featured three goals from Lukas Julis and placed Neil Lennon’s position in jeopardy after two prior home defeats at the hands of Rangers and AC Milan. Any further slippage at Fir Park would have put the board under severe pressure to replace their manager but, on this occasion, it was Celtic who finished 4-1 winners and Mohamed Elyounoussi whose hat-trick was the highlight.
Lennon had made his players watch their performance against Sparta in full as both punishment and instruction. Self-improvement rather than self-harm being his intent, Lennon achieved his aim, as was evident from kick-off at Fir Park where Odsonne Edouard and Shane Duffy were on the bench, replaced by Albian Ajeti and Kris Ajer respectively as the two changes from Thursday night.
Celtic’s movement was intense and focused but they were also required to be alert in defence as Motherwell attempted to exploit the vulnerabilities exposed in recent weeks, both from open play and the set-pieces where delivery was assigned to Liam Polworth. It was Polworth, though, who inadvertently helped bring about Celtic’s opener when he was careless with an attempted pass which was intercepted by Ajeti, who struck a venomous drive beyond Aaron Chapman and off the inside of the far post.
The ball ricocheted back across the goalmouth where Elyounoussi was first to react and stabbed the rebound across the line. Midway through the half Motherwell claimed vociferously for a penalty kick when Callum Lang went down in a challenge by Scott Brown but the forward gave the impression of going to ground easily and there was no award by Andrew Dallas.
Celtic promptly doubled their advantage when Tom Rogic – whose return to fitness has been timely – provided a cutback for Elyounoussi to slash home.
Whatever Stephen Robinson said to his players at the break, they began the second half vigorously and both Lang and Devante Cole had attempts blocked on the line.
Motherwell’s attempt to find an aerial weakness in the Celtic back line finally succeeded in the 72nd minute at a Polworth free kick which saw Declan Gallagher outjump Nir Bitton to head past Scott Bain, seemingly to throw the outcome into doubt. That impression was banished within moments and Elyounoussi attacked a deep cross from Hatem Elhamed with a stooping header beyond Chapman for his third goal of the afternoon.
Edouard and Olivier Ntcham arrived as Celtic substitutes with seven minutes remaining, time enough for the former to supply the latter for a simple tap-in to make it 4-1.
“That was much better,” Lennon said. “We know that we let ourselves down on Thursday and we tried to iron out a few things in the last couple of days.
“There have been signs that we’re improving and then we throw in a Sparta Prague performance. We need to be looking forward and producing better performances like today.
“If we played like that in Europe then we’d be much better off. We’ve still got a lot of work to do in Europe but it isn’t beyond us.”