We came here to praise Stoke City’s continental conversion and went away appreciating the remarkable resolve of an Aston Villa rearguard superbly marshalled by Ron Vlaar.
Thanks to Andreas Weimann’s goal five minutes into the second half, Paul Lambert’s team were able to play to their strengths and soak up pressure while counterattacking with promise and no little quality. With Christian Benteke to return in October, Villa’s fortunes in this transitional period could be on the turn.
Bojan Krkic, signed from Barcelona, flashed and burned on a difficult debut in English football and Mark Hughes, pleased to have acquired Victor Moses on loan from Chelsea for a year, admitted he will have to pick and choose the games in which he can expect the erstwhile “next Lionel Messi” to shine for Stoke. “This was a bit of a wake-up call for us,” the Stoke manager said, “because we all had high expectations and they’ve been tempered somewhat today. We know we need to work hard this season. But we also need to be better than that.
“It was important [Krkic] got some game time. He showed glimpses in some situations. We need to be able to find him in those [attacking] areas more often. We need to play him in the right games against the right opposition to get the best out of him.”
Stoke did the double over Villa last year, have finished above them for the past three seasons and achieved their highest league position since 1975 in finishing ninth in the Premier League last term. But while they started brightly Krkic drifting across the line behind Mame Biram Diouf, his fellow attacking debutant, and cutting in from the left to shoot into the side-netting, Villa grew into the game and deserved their first away victory since New Year’s Day.
With the club up for sale, Villa’s woes are far from over but with the experience they have acquired this summer, and Carlos Sánchez, the Colombia anchorman, to integrate into their midfield, they look as if they will be much harder to beat this season on this evidence. No ever-present in the Premier League over the past two seasons have conceded more goals than Villa, which is why Lambert has been pleased to recall Alan Hutton, cast out for two years as the club tried and failed to lever him off the wage bill, and bring in Philippe Senderos, Aly Cissokho and Kieran Richardson, who were excellent on their debuts.
With a solid platform, Villa attacked well and Gabby Agbonlahor should have scored midway through the first half when Richardson capitalised on indecision between Asmir Begovic and Marc Wilson to cross to the former England striker who shot wide when under pressure from Ryan Shawcross.
Villa fans cheered their team off raucously at half-time, scenting what now constitutes a surprise result, and their volume increased another notch five minutes after the restart when Weimann gave them the lead. There was a fine buildup through midfield before the ball was played to Charles N’Zogbia, another of Villa’s long-forgotten returnees, who turned superbly on the edge of the penalty area only for Glenn Whelan to scoop the ball off his toes.
Inadvertently, however, the Stoke anchorman passed the ball out to Weimann, wide on the right of the Stoke box. His first touch was poor but he responded in the best fashion by winning the ricochet off Wilson and thrashing his shot across goal and into the far corner of the net.
“This year is a totally different feeling,” Lambert said. “I thought we were outstanding and that we deserved to win the game.”