THE word ‘relief’ just about summed up the atmosphere around the Britannia Stadium on Saturday afternoon as the Potters claimed their first Barclays Premier League triumph of the campaign.
Substitute Mame Diouf came to his side’s rescue with a dramatic late header just as it appeared that Mark Hughes’ side had surrendered a relatively comfortable half-time advantage for a second successive week.
Republic of Ireland international Jonathan Walters netted his third in as many games to get the winless hosts up and running in the 32nd minute, and from that moment on you would have thought that Stoke would move up the gears and take the game away from the top-flight new boys.
However, nerves set in and the visitors began to dictate the tempo of the second half – and it seemed inevitable that Eddie Howe’s men would drag themselves level as they upped the ante and looked to capitalise on the home side’s tension.
That goal came 15 minutes from time when Dan Gosling reacted quickest to a free ball inside the 18-yard box and guided the ball beyond the reach of Jack Butland and into the bottom corner of the net – sending the travelling Cherries supporters into delirium behind the goal.
Stoke needed a response, and they needed it quickly!
Thankfully, it came courtesy of two individual moments of brilliance – firstly from Glen Johnson, who delivered a pinpoint centre, and finally from Diouf, who displayed his undoubted goalscoring prowess and finished with real aplomb from 8-yards out.
The goal cued celebrations around the stadium that paralleled any other in the Club’s recent history. You couldn’t help but think that the Senegalese international’s late header was a potentially season-defining moment.
Of course, we are only six weeks in to the term, but the ramifications of failing to record a triumph at the seventh time of asking, and especially having been in the ascendency for the second time in seven days, could have been huge.
Credit to Hughes’ men though who fought to the bitter end against a side, who had already claimed maximum spoils from testing fixtures against Sunderland and in-form West Ham United prior to their visit to North Staffordshire.
Hughes made two changes to his starting eleven prior to kick-off with Charlie Adam being thrust straight back into the eleven after serving a three-man suspension following his dismissal against West Brom in August, whilst Philipp Wollscheid was handed his first start of the term.
Scotland international Adam replaced on loan Chelsea midfielder Marco van Ginkel at the heart of the side and Marc Wilson’s injury paved the way for German defender Wollscheid to partner Geoff Cameron in an unfamiliar central defence partnership.
The match was fragmented, almost from the first whistle, as just five minutes in, play was stopped for a prolonged period as paramedics and club medical staff treated Bournemouth’s leading scorer Callum Wilson, who looked to have landed awkwardly on his ankle.
It wasn’t the start to the game that neither side were hoping for – as the visitors lost their talisman and the Potters struggled to gain any real momentum following the stoppage in play.
The hosts did manage to get into their stride however, and Marko Arnautovic was once more the architect of another Potters goal as his brilliance down the left culminated in him teeing up Walters inside the 6-yard box, who had the simple task of tapping the ball over the line.
Other opportunities came and went, with Bojan stinging the fingertips of Artur Boruc from distance, before the stopper did well to block a Glenn Whelan effort, from a similar distance, that flew through a crowded penalty area.
At the other end the superb Erik Pieters produced a moment of pure inspiration as his last gasp challenge denied Howe’s side an undoubted goal, before Wollscheid made another crucial intervention to stop recent £5m arrival Glenn Murray in his tracks.
Right on the stroke of half-time, the irresistible Arnautovic, who was wreaking havoc inside the Bournemouth half, played a superb one-two with Pieters, burst through on goal but then clipped his strike wide of the post, when he probably should have at least tested the ‘keeper.
Club record signing Xherdan Shaqiri prematurely departed the action seconds before the interval after pulling up with what appeared to be a slight hamstring straign. Ibrahim Afellay, who impressed against Fulham on Tuesday, was his replacement.
It wasn’t until the second half that Butland was seriously challenged, but as has been the case already this term, when questions were asked of him, he possessed all of the answers.
He displayed tremendous agility to block Matt Ritchie’s thumping effort from a tight angle, and watched with confidence, and maybe a slight hint of anxiety, as the lively Cherries midfielder tried to catch the England international off his guard with an audacious effort from the half-way line.
Stoke were showing signs of anxiety themselves as they looked to see out the encounter and claim a first league win of the season – a weight they looked desperate to have taken away from their shoulders.
Uncharacteristically, the players began to sit deep, arguably too deep, allowing Bournemouth far too much time on the ball and gifting them opportunities to pick out key passes inside the opposition half.
All of a sudden Stoke looked frail and the visitors period of dominance eventually told when a bouncing ball inside the box wasn’t fully cleared, and Gosling steamed in and hit and effort to Butland’s left, and into the back of the net.
The atmosphere around the stadium was sombre. The players on the pitch looked leggy. But something clicked into gear, and Stoke had a second wind – one which would ultimately be enough to see them prevail triumphant.
Substitute Marko van Ginkel, who had earlier replaced Adam, freed Johnson down the right, he took one touch and curled an outstanding ball across the 6-yard box, straight into the path of Diouf, whose header had just enough on it to squirm past the desperate Boruc.
Whilst it was frustration for the Bournemouth number one, it was sheer jubilation for his opposite number, Butland, who made his biggest contribution to the match in stoppage time, with an outstanding save at the near post to earn his side all three points.