Not so long ago Stoke City were the Premier League’s most infamous team. Tony Pulis guided them into the English top flight in 2008, and they quickly made an impression with their no-nonsense, heavy-handed approach to the beautiful game. Five years later they were an established Premier League side, and the Britannia Stadium was one of the most feared away grounds in the country. Leo Messi might be doing just fine in La Liga, the saying used to go, but could he cut it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke?
In 2013, Mark Hughes took over a club with more ambition than to simply be the Premier League’s biggest bruisers, and the Welshman has slowly transformed the Potters into a team with the resilience of old combined with a new-found flair. This is in no part down to the kind of players Stoke have been able to acquire over the past two years. Former Barcelona wonderkid Bojan arrived in 2014, followed by the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Ibrahim Afellay last summer. These are clearly players of high European pedigree; indeed, in Marko Arnautovic, Bojan, Marc Muniesa, Ibrahim Afellay and Xherdan Shaqiri, Stoke now have more Champions League winners than any other Premier League team.
These bold arrivals have been the catalyst of a footballing revolution, and despite a slow start to the season, Stoke are beginning to make their way up the table. Having beaten Manchester City and Manchester United in recent weeks, a Stoke side full of confidence today traveled to Everton, another of the Premier League’s better teams to watch. It promised to be an entertaining game between two eye-catching sides, and a 3-4 win for the away side made it one of the games of the season so far.
Shaqiri scored twice for Stoke City, including one goal which, if intended, has to be a contender for goal of the season. For Everton, Romelu Lukaku continued his own goalscoring run with a brace to match top goalscorer Jamie Vardy’s total of 15.
Late goals from Gerard Deulofeu and Mato Joselu appeared to be sending home both teams with a point, before a controversial penalty was given to Stoke and dispatched by Marko Arnautovic in stoppage time. Replays have since shown that John Stones touched the ball in the decisive tackle, but the three goals conceded by Everton before that point were indicative of a defensively frail side with top-four ambitions.
Just as Roberto Martinez showed during his time in charge at Wigan Athletic, he’s capable of inspiring this Everton team to play fantastic, flowing football.
Unfortunately, consistent issues at the back have undermined their start to the season, and today’s loss saw them slip into the bottom half of the table. Simply put, they should be doing better. Everton have a talented group of youngsters who all look set to reach the very highest levels of the game. In Lukaku, Stones, Barkley and Deulofeu, the nucleus is there for a fantastic side for years to come. However, unless Martinez can rectify his side’s defensive fragility, European football will remain elusive, and his young starlets will seek fame and fortune elsewhere.