Luis Suarez is past tense as Sterling and Sturridge prove they are the main men at Anfield now
Published 18/08/2014 | 10:24
Missing the demonic genius of Luis Suárez, Liverpool have handed the future to Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, or "m'self and Razza" as the more senior of the two referred to his accomplice in this soothing 2-1 victory against a post-exodus Southampton.
"I'm the older brother, as such," Sturridge insisted after the pair had both scored either side of a Nathaniel Clyne equaliser. Sturridge is also the striker charged with filling the void left by Suárez, but he will need a lot of help from his friends.
Anfield, on a cold August Sunday, was a theatre missing its great thespian. The eye went looking for last year's footballer of the year but the ear told the story. Liverpool's home was subdued for long stretches. The pace was slower than on the best days last season.
There was no sharp-fanged No 7 to pull Southampton's defence around and dart through the gaps to inflict havoc. There was not the same automatic menace that comes with having a forward of Suárez's class hunting around the penalty box.
But life will roll on. It already has. With his winning goal - a side-foot from a Sterling header - Sturridge took the first big step towards being Liverpool's star centre-forward rather than one-half of a brilliant duo. "There's pressure on me to get the goals, now, with Luis out of the team," he conceded. "We've showed today we can move on without Luis. We can win games and score goals."
This call to arms came after Southampton had inflicted thought-wrecking pressure on Liverpool in the second half. Many Saints may have gone marching out in the transfer market but those who were left behind or have since come in allayed the fears of Southampton fans who might have expected them to crash towards the Championship.
Ronald Koeman's men were eager, tough and threatening. On the left Dusan Tadic looks a high-quality recruit. The first signing of Koeman's reign, he supplied the brilliant back heel for Clyne's net-bursting strike. Clyne, the young right-back who also earned high marks, was at fault for Sterling's first-half goal, failing to pick up his opponent's run on to a superb Jordan Henderson pass, but was otherwise keen to get on with life without Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and the rest.
Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, has had to hide whatever negative feelings he may have towards Suárez behind a wall of diplomacy. As he said before kick-off: "We scored 101 goals in the league last year. Luis scored 31 of them, so 70 were scored by others."
An advantage for Liverpool - regardless of transfers - was that Sterling and Sturridge improved dramatically in that campaign. A continuation of that progress was always going to be the club's best protection against the loss of Suárez. Besides, the team's other weakness was further back, in defence, where they conceded 50 goals in 2013-14: 13 more than the champions, Manchester City, and 23 more than Chelsea. Thus Rodgers needed to add championship calibre defenders while extending the talent-depth beyond 13 or 14 names.
It will take 10 games for us to know whether he has succeeded or taken the Tottenham Hotspur route of trying to replace a world-class game-changer with a committee of lesser talents. The Gareth Bale money was largely squandered by Spurs. Early signs are that the Luis Suárez bounty has been spent more wisely, with Lallana, Alberto Moreno, Lazar Markovic, Divock Origi and Emre Can yet to wear the Liver Bird in Premier League action.
Dejan Lovren is an obvious hit, despite being beaten by Tadic's outrageous back heel. The measure of Lovren's impact will be seen when Sergio Agüero or Diego Costa are giving him grief in a top-five fixture.
But already he looks a natural in a position associated with Tommy Smith, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and Jamie Carragher. Javier Manquillo, on loan from Atlético Madrid, also impressed at right-back while Rickie Lambert, another ex-Saint, looks more of an option from the bench.
Sterling is going to have to fight Philippe Coutinho for the playmaker's role, assuming Lallana starts on the right. Last season Sterling earned the right not to be seen as a winger. His passing and movement behind the strikers marked him out as a midfield artiste.
This kind of jostling is just what Rodgers wants as he aims to get the pace of integration right. Though last season's "core is still there" dilemmas will multiply. Rodgers's brain will have to work on even more levels to ensure that every ounce of ability in his squad is used in the right way in the correct competitions.
He is hardly short of incentives. With Suárez fleeing like Dracula in the night, many of us predicted a struggle to reach the league's top four spots. The adjustment is clearly substantial. This side seemed spooked for a while when Southampton became super-animated after the interval.
But Liverpool came through it, thanks to "m'self and Razza" - England's best two young attackers. After Sturridge's winning goal, Rodgers invaded the pitch to celebrate. He still needs to invade one more club for another A-list striker, to give Sturridge the support he will need.
Luis Suárez is past tense.