XHERDAN SHAQIRI’S stunning second half free-kick secured his side a share of the spoils from Saturday’s 2016/17 Premier League opener against Middlesbrough.
The Switzerland star, who netted a sensational goal for his country during this summer’s European Championships, displayed his class with another moment of sheer magic at the Riverside Stadium 25 minutes from time.
The wide-man whipped a ferocious free-kick from 25-yards in off the post, leaving former Barcelona stopper Victor Valdes helpless in the Boro goal.
The goal undoubtedly came at a crucial point of the encounter, and right in the midst of the Potters’ most dominant period of the afternoon.
It had looked like Alvaro Negredo’s debut goal was going to be enough to get the newly-promoted side off to a flyer, with the on-loan Valencia striker heading home from close range after just 11 minutes.
And they went close to doubling their advantage on two occasions after that with Gaston, the architect of Negredo’s effort, rattling the woodwork with a crisp 15-yard effort just five minutes later.
Shay Given, deputising for the injured Jack Butland, was nearly caught out by what would have been a fortuitous Stewart Downing centre towards the end of the first-half, with his mishit cross clipping the near post.
At the other end Marko Arnautovic marginally failed to make contact with a delicious through ball from Shaqiri, whilst the Austrian hammered an effort wide of target moments later.
Stoke were going to need a vastly improved showing in the second period if they were to seriously challenge their opponents hugely impressive defensive quartet, who shipped in just eight goals on home turf during their promotion winning campaign.
There was an evident improvement with Shaqiri, Bojan and Arnautovic all having a greater say on proceedings, similarly to Giannelli Imbula, who even before the break was arguably the Potters’ stand-out performer.
Bojan’s intricacy on the ball and Arnautovic’s directness had the hosts on the back foot, and whilst Valdes wasn’t being seriously tesated, it was evident that a chance would present itself sooner rather than later.
That chance did come midway through the half when Ben Gibson upended Bojan, thus allowing Shaqiri to let rip a trademark left-footed strike into the back of the net and sending the travelling army of supporters to the left of the goal into delirium.
Summer recruit Joe Allen and Jonathan Walters were both introduced late on in a bid to win the game, but despite the best efforts of Philipp Wollscheid, who saw a late header drift wide of target, the game ended all square.
A more than satisfactory start to the new campaign for Hughes and his troops, who now look ahead to next weekend’s televised home encounter with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
OPENING DAY BLUES… (NO MORE)
The Potters had become accustomed to suffering a disappointing opening day fate under boss Mark Hughes, with each of the previous three season openers under the Welshman ending in defeat.
However, displaying their new light blue away kit for the fixture in the North East, his side were able to put that record to bed thanks to Shaqiri’s mesmeric strike from distance.
The stalemate at the Riverside Stadium means City still haven’t recorded three points on matchday one since claiming a 2-0 triumph over Burnley at the bet365 Stadium in 2009.
Interestingly, the Potters, under the guidance of Hughes, haven’t lost the second game of a Premier League season.
In his previous three matchday two fixtures, Hughes has overseen two draws against Hull City (2014) and Tottenham Hotspur (2015) and a victory over Crystal Palace (2013).
So, Manchester City… beware!
Hughes opted to resist any temptation of throwing summer acquisitions Joe Allen and Ramadan straight into the firing line in the North East.
Allen, who enjoyed a fine European Championships for Wales, was the more likely of the pair to get the nod from the Welshman, but he was forced to settle for a spot amongst the substitutes on matchday one.
Ramadan was always expected to be eased into Premier League action, given his relatively young age and the fact that he is still acclimatising to the country following his recent switch from Egypt.
Allen was introduced as a late substitute, and he looked comfortable and classy in the middle of the pitch, and his tenacity and willingness to quickly close down opponents led to a couple of errors from his opponents.
The pair will undoubtedly play more significant roles as the season progresses, both for two very different reasons!
Shaqiri’s wonder strike was the Potters’ first Premier League goal direct from a free-kick in almost three years.
The talented Swiss whipped home an outstanding individual goal from distance, adding to his tally of other impressive finishes for both Club and country during the past 12 months.
The last player to net directly from a set-piece was teammate Arnautovic, who let rip an equally as impressive strike against Manchester United, at Old Trafford, during the 2013/14 campaign.
Ironically, his effort also found its way into the back of the net via the woodwork with David de Gea helpless from preventing his curling effort from finding its way over the line.
Here’s to many more set-piece stunners over the course of the next nine months!