XHERDAN SHAQIRI’S sensational strike 10 minutes from time will ultimately grab the headlines in the national media this weekend … but it was Mark Hughes’ inspired second half substitution that proved to be the turning point in an entertaining, and at times nervy, affair at the bet365 Stadium.
With the game delicately poised at one apiece on the hour mark, the City boss showed bravery and boldness in making changes to both formation and personnel as he looked to reignite his side’s hopes of claiming maximum spoils against in-form Hull City.
His changes paid almost immediate dividends as Jonathan Walters and Peter Crouch linked up to quite devastating effect, with the latter heading home his eighth goal of the season to edge the hosts back in front following goals either side of the break from Marko Arnautovic and the Tigers’ Harry Maguire.
With the home side well in the ascendency, and having gone agonisingly close to extending their lead through Walters, whose curling effort cannoned the crossbar, the spotlight then fell on Swiss star Shaqiri, who let rip an absolutely stunning strike from 30-yards out that flew into the top corner of the net.
The former FC Bayern man’s goal of the season contender was the perfect way to round off a perfect afternoon for the home side, who went into the fixture in desperate need of a victory having suffered four successive losses.
The visitors meanwhile had given themselves real belief of retaining their Premier League status after claiming nine points from their previous four outings, to elevate themselves out of the drop zone at the expense of Swansea City.
Right from the offset it was the hosts who looked the more determined to take the game to their opponents though, and it came as no surprise when their early dominance told as Arnautovic struck home a superb opener after being intelligently picked out by the imperious Shaqiri.
Saido Berahino, who continued to show encouraging signs in his latest outing, was narrowly denied his first goal in red and white stripes after being correctly flagged for offside, moments before drilling the ball under the approaching Hull stopper.
Arnautovic then volleyed over from six-yards after being fed by Shaqiri, whilst the Swiss then wasted a great opportunity of doubling the advantage himself after taking too long to pick out the bottom corner of the net, thus allowing Maguire the chance to divert his goal-bound effort away from the target.
As the half wore on Hull began to get a foothold of proceedings, and it seemed the Potters may be forced to pay for their missed opportunities when Marco Silva’s troops began to expre themselves, and show more of the qualities that have helped them move out of the bottom three in recent weeks.
On loan Everton man Oumar Niasse went agonisingly close to levelling the scoreline on the half hour mark, but failed to convert Lazar Markovic’s dangerous ball across goal, before Tom Huddleston hammered an effort inches wide of the target when well positioned.
Lee Grant had to be at his best to block Niasse’s strike from 12-yards whilst he produced an even better stop to deny Liverpool loanee Markovic, who thought he had netted for the Tigers following a slick passage of play down the Potters’ left.
The break came at a good time for the home side, but the start of the second half couldn’t have been any worse as the visitors pulled themselves level just six minutes after the restart, courtesy of a scrappy strike from the highly-rated Maguire.
The goal breathed life into the visitors and left the home side contemplating a fifth successive loss … that was however until Hughes made drastic changes to his side, reverting back to a 4-4-2 formation and replacing Berahino and Charlie Adam with Walters and Crouch.
The pair couldn’t have made a greater contribution, with Walters latching onto a delightful cross-field ball from Arnautovic, taking one touch and whipping a delightful cross straight onto the head of Crouch, who then reeled off in celebration in front of the joyous Boothen End.
From that moment on you sensed there would only be one winner, although the home supporters had their hearts in their mouths when Markovic thumped a strike towards the bottom corner of the net, only for Grant to produce the save of the match and help preserve his side’s narrow advantage.
As the game ticked down towards its conclusion there were a couple more moments to enjoy for the home supporters with firstly Walters rattling the woodwork following a sublime passage of play, before Shaqiri scored THAT goal!
Words don’t really do it justice, so make sure you tune in to MOTD on Saturday night…