New-look Stoke stunned by Coutinho in Premier League opener
In-demand Switzerland star Xherdan Shaqiri was in the stands to witness a keenly fought Premier League opening weekend contest between Stoke City and Liverpool, who began life without long-time inspirational skipper Steven Gerrard needing Philippe Coutinho’s stunning strike to snatch all three points.
Brendan Rodgers’ Reds (now 6/4 with Coral for a top four finish), hit for six at the Britannia Stadium at the end of last season, bettered fellow heavyweights Chelsea and Arsenal who both dropped points, but needed a moment of magic from their mercurial Brazilian.
The Potters, much-changed by their ambitious recruitment plus the sales of Asmir Begovic and Steven N’Zonzi, had Jack Butland in goal and were missing skipper Ryan Shawcross, who is out for two months because of back surgery.
Mark Hughes handed debuts to Glen Johnson against his former club at right back, Chelsea loanee Marco van Ginkel in midfield where N’Zonzi did so much solid work, and Ibrahim Afellay – the latest Barcelona boy to swap Catalonia for Stoke – wide left.
Liverpool, meanwhile, gave £32.5m striker Christian Benteke his competitive bow up top, with the big Belgian joining England duo Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner, plus the surprise selection of teenage talent Joe Gomez at left back. Brazil attacker Roberto Firmino joined new forward options Danny Ings and Divock Origi on the bench.
A lacklustre first-half saw both sides manage one tame shot on target between them. The Potters were 5-0 up by that stage 77 days ago.
Hughes was forced into a defensive reshuffle at the interval, with Erik Pieters feeling unwell, which meant Philipp Wollscheid coming on and Marc Muniesa moving across to full back.
Van Ginkel worked Simon Mignolet with a low, deflected effort early in the second-half and Mame Biram Diouf also went close from Charlie Adam’s free-kick.
Butland’s save from Martin Skrtel, who got great headed contact to an outswinging Milner corner, was one for the cameras. Benteke’s best efforts, meanwhile, were blocked by a resolute Stoke rearguard.
Just when it looked like a certain stalemate, Coutinho lit the touch paper with a sensational solo strike from long range. Young Gomez slipped the ball to him, the Brazil international took on his man and lashed past Butland.
Rodgers, perceived by many to be the most under pressure manager in the Premier League, has an early advantage over Liverpool’s rivals to build on, but extra creativity will be needed to come through sterner tests.