XHERDAN SHAQIRI impressed on his Stoke City debut but it was goalkeeper Jack Butland who grabbed the headlines at Carrow Road as he earned his side a point against newly-promoted Norwich City.
The England international produced a string of superb saves, both prior to and following the break, to keep his side in the contest after Russell Martin had drawn the home side level midway through the first half following Mame Diouf’s 11th minute opener.
The Senegalese international beat the offside trap to meet Shaqiri’s sublime set-piece delivery to head the Potters in front, before Martin capitalised on some sloppy defending to fire the ball through Butland’s legs from close range.
Substitute Joselu had a late opportunity to steal all three points from close range, but that would have been incredibly harsh on the Canaries, who were left bewildered by the exceptional Butland, who produced three world class saves in the final 15 minutes of the encounter.
Prior to kick-off Mark Hughes handed Shaqiri his Barclays premier league debut at the expense of Republic of Ireland international Jonathan Walters, who was absent from the matchday squad after suffering a bout of illness in the build-up to kick-off.
The inclusion of the £12m winger was the only change to the side from the one that claimed a 2-2 draw against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane seven days earlier.
Hughes’ decision to splash the cash on the talismatic Shaqiri was largely prompted by his undoubted talents on the ball – many of which were evident throughout a very productive Premier League debut.
The Swiss star oozed class, as well as determination, and looked a real handful on every occasion that he found himself on the ball down the right flank.
Unsurprisingly, it was he who crafted the opening goal of the afternoon 11 minutes in with a tremendous set-piece delivery.
His pin-point centre caught the Canaries rear-guard napping, allowing Diouf to step forward, beating the offside trap in the process, and glancing a superb header into the bottom left hand corner of the net.
The travelling Potters supporters were purring, and even afforded themselves a moment of light-heartedness when chants of ‘we’re going to win the league’ broke out as their side displayed fluidity on the ball.
Norwich, buoyed by their side’s impressive 3-1 triumph over Sunderland seven days earlier, were never going to allow Mark Hughes’ men to have it all their own way, and it came as no surprise to see them enjoy their most fruitful period of the half during the final 15 minutes.
Redmond was a constant nuisance on the right, whilst the craft of Wes Hoolahan through the centre and the power and pace of former Potter Jerome was enough to worry the City backline, which was once more missing the injured skipper Ryan Shawcross.
Jack Butland had to be alert to thwart his best friend Redmond inside the box after he had been freed, whilst he watched a Hoolahan effort sail harmlessly wide from distance after the Irishman whipped an effort past the post.
Muniesa, who was drawing comparisons with the great Bobby Moore inside the press box, largely due to his ability to step in and break up play, was again showing signs of greater maturity as he kept home opportunities down to a minimum.
Alex Neil’s side did have their crowning glory after 10 minutes of sustained pressure when Butland was helpless to stop captain Martin from firing home from close range just moments after the ‘keeper had done well to fist an initial effort away from danger.
The game was perfectly balanced as the half drew towards its climax, with Stoke having several half opportunities at one end – the majority of which were created by Shaqiri – whilst Robbie Brady curled a 25-yard free-kick about a foot wide of target at the other, after Marco van Ginkel had brought down Redmond.
There were brief celebrations amongst the travelling contingent of fans when Diouf capitalised on some hesitant defending, skipped round John Ruddy and tucked the ball home, but they were short lived as the linesman correctly flagged for offside.
The start of the second half heralded a bombardment on the Stoke City penalty area as the home side looked to get out the traps quickest and pen the Potters back into their own half.
But for the fingertips of number one Butland, and a quite inexcusable miss from Jerome, the game could well have been out of sight before the visitors had managed to gain any foothold on proceedings.
Hughes responded by making a double change with both Stephen Ireland, the architect of a quite tremendous comeback at White Hart Lane seven days earlier, and Joselu, replacing Marko Arnautovic and Ibrahim Afellay.
Those changes didn’t really alter the momentum of play as Norwich continued to look by far the more likely of the two sides to score the third goal of the afternoon – with Bradley Johnson and Redmond guilty of missing the target when well positioned.
A rare Stoke surge forward culminated in Shaqiri, dancing past two defenders and whipping an audacious effort from an acute angle narrowly over the upright, with Canaries stopper Ruddy stranded.
Butland continued to do his chances of a recall back in to the England squad no harm whatsoever with a sequence of phenomenal saves – two of which left his close friend Redmond flabbergasted, as the stopper somehow finger-tipped efforts wide of the post.
The 22-year-old was at it again as the game drew towards its tense and nervy conclusion – firstly parrying Graham Dorrans’ strike onto the foot of the post, and then spreading himself to block Jerome’s acrobatic point-blank effort.
Despite that, there was a glorious opportunity to have stolen all three points at the death when Spanish striker Joselu found himself unmarked inside the penalty area, but with the goal at his mercy he sliced his effort over the bar.