Hooper extends Bhoys' SPL lead
Last Updated: 25/02/12 5:47pm
Hooper (l): Battles for the ball during the clash
Gary Hooper's second-half strike was enough to beat Motherwell 1-0 at Parkhead and take Celtic 23 points clear of administration-hit Rangers.
After a lacklustre first half, the former Scunthorpe striker latched on to a Georgios Samaras knock-down in the 59th minute and fired in from close range for his 20th goal of the season.
Celtic were not at their best, but it was a game they never looked like losing and Darren Randolph was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers.
The Hoops fans left after watching their side record their 14th straight win as they continue their quest for the treble, but with so little competition in the league there may be a few more days like this before the title is clinched.
But Celtic manager Neil Lennon could surely not care less about the manner in which his team wrest the championship back from Ibrox.
In trying to keep a big squad involved in the run-in to what he hopes will be a domestic treble, Lennon made five changes to the side which beat Dunfermline 2-0 in midweek.
In came defenders Adam Matthews and Thomas Rogne, midfielders Victor Wanyama, James Forrest and striker Samaras for Cha Du-ri, Emilio Izaguirre, Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes, who all dropped to the bench, with captain Scott Brown missing with a groin injury.
Motherwell were looking for a win that would have taken them level on points with Rangers.
Well skipper Keith Lasley returned from suspension at the expense of Omar Daley and they started confidently enough, showing little of the fear displayed by bottom side Dunfermline on their visit.
In the ninth minute Forrest played in Hooper, who turned into the box and drove a dangerous ball across goal which no one got on the end of, seconds before Well keeper Randolph had to rush from his line to thwart Samaras.
In the 15th minute, after the Well defence struggled to clear their lines, Celtic's stand-in skipper Charlie Mulgrew turned and fired the ball just wide of the post from 12 yards.
As the pressure on the Motherwell goal intensified momentarily, Randolph had to make a good save from Samaras, after the Greece striker had volleyed in a shot from the edge of the box.
Celtic had control of the game with the Lanarkshire side living dangerously if not defending desperately.
Forrest laid the ball off to Matthews on the right and from the Welshman's deep cross to the back post Samaras headed off the back of Tom Hateley, the Well defender appearing to know little about his saving block.
Three minutes from the break Celtic defender Kelvin Wilson headed a Ki Sung-yueng free-kick weakly at Randolph from eight yards and in the final seconds, as the home side finished with a flurry, Randolph made a good save from Ki's driven free-kick from wide on the left.
Hooper turned and fired wide with a 25-yard snap-shot in the first couple of minutes of the second-half, followed shortly by Samaras who missed the target from close range but the home side still looked off the pace.
Lennon did not wait too long until he made a change, bringing on Stokes for Wanyama in the 58th minute and seconds later Celtic were ahead.
Matthews' long throw-in from the right was chested down by Samaras to Hooper, who rifled the ball low past Randolph from close range with his predator's instinct.
The atmosphere changed with the goal and Celtic pressed the Motherwell defence for the next few minutes looking to tie up the points, with the Fir Park players forced in to some desperate defending at times.
With nothing to lose Motherwell began to throw bodies forward, although in the 70th minute striker Henrik Ojamaa was rightly booked for diving in the Celtic box.
By pushing forward the visitors left themselves open at the back and, after a swift Celtic break, Randolph had to dive to his right to save from Forrest's drive with the corner coming to nothing.
The final stages came to life as play swung from end to end and there were scares at both ends, but nothing more as Celtic rolled onward to their all but inevitable title win.