Match Review: Middlesbrough 1-1 Stoke

Shaqiri spares Stoke a shocking start

It’s back. Stoke City have entered their ninth consecutive season in the Premier League, but boy did they start it shaky. Their 1-1 draw against Middlesbrough didn’t exactly favour the home side either as they will feel disappointed that they didn’t take further advantage of a less than convincing Stoke team. Alvaro Negredo did manage to unpick the Stoke defence after just 11 minutes with a cheeky header from four yards out. But Stoke did manage to fight back in the second half and it took a magical moment from the Power Cube, Xherdan Shaqiri, who buried a deliciously curling free kick to salvage what was a majorly poor performance from a Stoke side that had so much promise.

Stoke came into the new season with new signings Ramadan Sobhi, Joe Allen and Ryan Sweeney. None of these players made the starting 11 as the latter was playing for the U23’s, the former didn’t manage to make the squad at all while Joe Allen had to settle for a place on the bench. An injury to Jack Butland saw Shay Given start in goal. Bardsley, Shawcross, Wollscheid and Pieters comprised the back four with Whelan and Imbula sitting in front of them. The preferred attacking quartet, as expected, consisted of Shaqiri, Bojan, Arnautovic and Diouf. Diouf and Bojan both having good pre-seasons, Arnautovic having just signed a new deal with the Potters and Shaqiri coming back from scoring a wonder-goal in this Summer’s European Championships.

Fresh from their heroics in the Championship, Boro started as the better side with multiple attacks on the Stoke goal. Shay Given didn’t look very comfortable in between the sticks: twice failing to handle incoming balls on the first time of asking, with one of those being tipped over the crossbar to prevent a cross going straight in the net! But it didn’t take long for the home side to propel themselves deservedly into the lead. A cross came in from Stoke’s left side and a poorly marked Negredo managed to hook the ball over a tumbling Given from four yards out. Stoke had ended the previous season with defensive issues and there was little convinced that Hughes had successfully trained the side how to tighten up at the back. Marc Wilson at this point must have been grinning from ear to ear.

Despite trailing, Stoke didn’t offer much threat to the Boro goal. Two memorable efforts stemmed from Bojan. One of those efforts started with a quick counter attack initiated by Arnautovic, Bojan collected the ball and, rather than feed Diouf through, decided to skew a 25 yard strike well wide. His other opportunity came from a corner, a training ground routine saw five Stoke players crowd the goalkeeper and the little Spaniard going for goal directly from the flag; unfortunately for him and Stoke, his effort didn’t have time to dip underneath the crossbar. Boro created plenty of chances of their own, their habit of getting balls into the box continually worried Stoke’s defence, the best of those saw Gaston Ramirez knock a header just over the top of the goal with a header on top of the penalty spot.

Half time signalled Stoke fans call for changes, Whelan looked to be struggling to keep up with a fast moving Boro side and Joe Allen was being called to provide a little more stability at the back. But Stoke started the second half as they ended the first and they continued their pursuit for an equaliser. The Potters managed to create a more even contest in the second half but early on there was no signs of a goal. The opening period was summed up by Marko Arnautovic who pulled out a delightful string of tricks to create space for himself to cut inside from the left and pull the trigger, but his rash effort saw the ball barely remain in play via contact with the far corner flag. What this game required was a moment of magic, a stroke of genius… luckily, Stoke had a man who could provide just that.

In the 67th minute, Stoke were awarded a free kick in a dangerous position on the edge of the Boro penalty area. But Stoke hadn’t scored directly from a free kick for nearly three years and free kicks last season were less effective than Imbula’s Summer glove-wearing. Against all the odds, Xherdan Shaqiri managed to lash a stupendously curling strike over the wall and away from the diving Valdes into the far post. As he ran over to the travelling faithful with an expression of sheer delight on his face, Stoke fans momentarily felt all worry drain away and matched the little Swiss’ grin. These are the moments fans long for, goals. And bloody good ones at that.

The final stages of the game drew out into a reasonably even contest, both sides looking to claim victory since both sides gave themselves signs of encouragement. But the best chance of the game fell to Stewart Downing: a cross from Adomah found his teammate free at the far post, but his bullet header was pelted straight at Given and, thankfully, this was one shot the veteran could hold on to. The final whistle blew moments later and honours ended even. Both teams would have been happy with not being a victim of a loss on the opening day but both sides will be frustrated, for different reasons, will be rueing that they didn’t make their opposition pay further.

From a Stoke point of view, a point at an away game against a newly promoted team seems like a decent result, considering that Stoke have lost so many of their season openers. However, Stoke should be concerned that they scored with their only shot on target and didn’t have one on target from open play at all. They will be aware that they need to create more clear cut chances than what they did today as they can’t always rely on a moment of magic. In terms of the defence, even though Stoke only conceded two shots on target, they were dominated in the first half and could have suffered harder against a more experienced and quality opposition. New signings could improve performances and Stoke should benefit further from playing in front of their own fans as they take on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City next week. But for now, let’s just bask in the glowing light that is the Premier League and absorb all of the action and emotions that it has to offer.

Welcome back to the Premier League, kick on.

Written by Ben Rowley

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