Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling bring fresh hope to Liverpool

Crucial striker: Daniel Sturridge scores the winning goal against Southampton at Anfield
Crucial striker: Daniel Sturridge scores the winning goal against Southampton at Anfield

For Brendan Rodgers, yesterday began with a good luck text from Luis Suarez. It ended, more significantly, with fresh hope for the Liverpool manager that in Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, he has two players ready to fill the gap left by the club's departed talisman.

Liverpool have lost Suarez's indefatigable inspiration, not to mention the scoring hunger that brought 31 goals during their thrilling, if thwarted, pursuit of the title last season.

Replacing him will not be easy – and there was mixed evidence in a difficult opening assignment against Ronald Koeman's impressively rebuilt Southampton side – yet Sterling and Sturridge's winning contributions at least allowed some reason to believe.

It was their goals that brought the Merseysiders the points in a hard-fought victory which had looked in doubt after Nathaniel Clyne's 53rd-minute equaliser for Southampton.

Indeed even after Sturridge's winning strike, Southampton should have had a late equaliser when Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet touched a Morgan Schneiderlin shot on to the underside of the crossbar and Shane Long headed the rebound wide.

Liverpool's performance was anything but convincing and Rodgers' relief was evident from the way he ran onto the pitch to celebrate Sturridge's goal.

"The fluency will come – today was about the win and we got the win," said the Ulsterman.

That said it had its moments, not least from Sterling in a left-sided attacking role. The 19-year-old has shone in pre-season, scoring a wonderful goal against Manchester City in New York, and he showed more of the same with the opening goal after 23 minutes.

Jordan Henderson was the architect as he bulldozed his way between two Southampton players and from just inside his own half directed a wonderful ball between Jose Fonte and Clyne.

Sterling accelerated on to it before placing a deft finish past Forster. "Raheem's was a great goal – great pass, great speed on the transition and touch and a wonderful finish," said Rodgers.

He was equally enthused by Sturridge's 79th-minute winner. It was a goal actually made by a headed assist from Sterling, who outjumped Steven Davis after after Victor Wanyama had headed a cross up into the air.

He flicked the ball on and Sturridge touched the ball in. If it was poor defending by Southampton, Rodgers argued that the presence of substitute Rickie Lambert – sportingly cheered by the away fans as he came on for his debut against his old team – had helped unsettle the visitors' defence.

Rodgers added of Sturridge: "That's 36 goals now in 50 appearances which just shows the level he is at.

"Sometimes he will have quiet games but he will always look like he can score a goal. It was a poacher's goal and he guided it beautifully into the corner."

Sturridge pointed to the "connection" between him and man of the match Sterling during a post-match interview, and said both were ready to rise to the challenge this term.

"Of course there is pressure on me to get the goals now with Luis out of the team.

"He scored 30-odd goals last season so it is important for myself and not just myself but the other lads to step up and Razza (Sterling) has showed today that with a cool head he can finish."

They were not the only ones to impress. The £20m Lovren, scorer of Southampton's winner in this fixture last season, was a commanding figure in a Liverpool defence featuring another debutant in Spanish right-back Javier Manquillo.

"A real leader" was Rodgers' verdict and they needed him as Southampton grew into the game after falling behind.

If Liverpool have lost their star man, Southampton had the very heart torn out of their team this summer with the loss of manager Mauricio Pochettino and five first-team players – three of whom, Adam Lallana, Lambert and Lovren wound up at Anfield.

Yet they actually looked the more coherent team for long spells playing with impressive spirit and organisation.

They competed well in midfield through Wanyama and Schneiderlin – his on-field focus restored after his failed attempt to get away to Tottenham – and it was the Frenchman who came closest to an equaliser before the break when he picked up a loose ball on the left side of the box and drew a flying save from Mignolet with a curling shot.

There were other encouraging performers in Saints shirts. The 19-year-old James Ward-Prowse, another home-produced talent, was lively in a drifting role behind new striker Graziano Pelle. Meanwhile, the £11m Serbian playmaker Dusan Tadic showed some classy touches, notably the backheel flick that set up Clyne's equalising goal after 56 minutes.

It was a lovely goal as Clyne played the ball in to the feet of Tadic, who returned it for Clyne to burst through and thrash the ball high into the roof of the net.

"We played a great second half," said Koeman, pleased with their high pressing football in that period of the encounter.

"After the (equaliser) I think there was one team on the pitch playing and that was Southampton. We did everything well minus scoring the second one."

That should have come when Ward-Prowse teed up Davis but he failed to beat Mignolet. It was not the only time their slick passing opened up the Liverpool defence but then came the sucker-punch – and with it, relief for Rodgers.

Afterwards the Liverpool manager was asked for the details of his morning exchange with Suarez.

"His heart is with Liverpool," he said, yet he was looking to the future.

"I do still think we want another striker," he added, though at least in Sterling and Sturridge, he has two players who already know the way to goal.

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