STOKE CITY were stunned by Philippe Coutinho’s outstanding late strike at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday afternoon as Liverpool claimed an undeserved 1-0 triumph in front of the live television cameras.
The Brazilian maestro struck gold for the visitors just five minutes from full-time with a thunderous effort from 25-yards that flew into the top left hand corner of the net.
Mark Hughes’ side had looked to be on course to claim what would have been a creditable opening day draw against the Reds, whose side was spearheaded by £32.5m striker Christian Benteke.
The hosts did have opportunities to have broken the deadlock themselves with Mame Diouf, debutant Ibrahim Afellay and Jonathan Walters all going close during the opening half.
The match was heading towards stalemate before Coutinho produced a moment of inspiration to snatch all three points for the visitors and avenge the 6-1 hammering the Potters dished out to them on the final day of last season.
Prior to kick-off Hughes handed three of his summer recruits competitive debuts, with former Anfield star Glen Johnson, Chelsea loanee Marco van Ginkel and Dutch international Afellay all in the starting eleven.
Meanwhile, Brendan Rodgers thrust four of his close season captures straight into his side, including Benteke and England international James Milner, as he looked to get their 2015/16 campaign off to a winning start.
Both sides were cautious during the initial exchanges, with the hosts eager not to concede an early goal and the visitors desperate not to suffer the same fate they endured in their last trip to North Staffordshire some 77 days earlier.
Half opportunities at either end of the pitch saw last season’s top scorer Mame Diouf skew over from 12-yards after Martin Skrtel had inadvertently blocked Afellay’s ferocious effort, whilst Coutinho was unable to make contact with a ball which flashed across the 6-yard box.
As the half progressed it was Stoke who looked the more dominant and the more likely to open the afternoon’s scoring, with Johnson in-particular proving to be a real nuisance with his pacy and powerful runs down the right flank.
Afellay had the fans on their feet with a couple of moments of sublime footwork in the centre of the pitch, even after he had been given an almighty welcome to English football with a heavy challenge from Clyne.
Charlie Adam, who netted against Liverpool last time out, tried his luck from distance, but to no avail, whilst Jack Butland watched on relatively untroubled as Milner let rip a long distance strike that flew harmlessly wide of target.
Hughes was forced into a slight reshuffle during the break with Erik Pieters being withdrawn after landing awkwardly during the first 45 minutes.
German international Philipp Wollscheid, who turned his loan deal into a permanent arrangement during the summer, came on as his replacement, with the impressive Marc Muniesa switching out to left-back.
The start of the second period heralded a brighter showing from the visitors, even though they never looked like troubling the City backline, who were being marshalled by Geoff Cameron in the absence of skipper Ryan Shawcross.
Stand-in skipper Glenn Whelan was doing his utmost to nullify the Liverpool threat with his combativeness in the centre of the park – complimenting the more attack-minded van Ginkel seemingly perfectly.
Butland was forced into his first real save of note midway through the second period, reacting brilliantly to save and gather Benteke’s looping header from 8-yards, before the England stopper demonstrated his awareness by rushing off his line to beat Adam Lallana to a through ball.
Belgian stopper Simon Mignolet proved his worth with a good save down to his right after Adam’s in-swinging free-kick had managed to evade a packed out penalty area and drift towards the far corner of the net.
In a bid to thrust a bit of extra pace into the side during the latter stages, Hughes’ welcomed Peter Odemwingie into the action, replacing the tired looking Afellay, as well as Steve Sidwell, who came on for Adam.
Coutinho brought an almighty cheer from the home supporters when he lashed an audacious 30-yard volley into the upper echelons of the Marstons Pedigree Stand ten minutes from time, but he was to have the final laugh just four minutes later.
With no real option available to him, the Brazilian span off Sidwell, took three touches and curled an unstoppable effort beyond the stretched out fingertips of Butland to send the travelling army of Liverpool supporters into absolute delirium, and in the process inflict a harsh opening day defeat upon the Potters.