Thursday 23 January 2020

Nervy Reds survive their first test of life after Luis

Liverpool 2 Southampton 1

Southampton's Graziano Pelle (left) and Liverpool's Raheem Sterling battle for the ball
Southampton's Graziano Pelle (left) and Liverpool's Raheem Sterling battle for the ball
Liverpool's Raheem Sterling (right) and Southampton's Nathaniel Clyne during the match at Anfield
Southampton's Nathaniel Clyne (left) and Liverpool's Rickie Lambert battle for the ball

Chris Bascombe

Bulldozers have gathered 
outside over the summer ahead of the much anticipated stadium 
redevelopment, but Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling are proving firm foundations are in place at Liverpool.

The England duo secured a nervy, scruffy opening-day victory against Southampton. This start to the new campaign felt like a replica to the last as Liverpool shaded three points in comparable fashion against Stoke City a year ago.

In the highly publicised absence of Luis Suarez, Sturridge was the match winner back then, and the similarities this time extended to the goalkeeper Simon Mignolet's late intervention in preserving three points.

That victory was retrospectively acknowledged as an early turning point in a dizzying campaign. There will be no complaints if the next eight months follow a similar path.

For Liverpool, the comfort yesterday was all in the win rather than the performance. The dynamism, speed of movement and nimble footwork that defined much of last season was lacking here, but it is hardly surprising. That will come with miles in the legs.

Drawing conclusions beyond the result is hazardous on the first weekend of the season.

Indeed, Ronald Koeman, the Southampton manager, had as much cause for optimism in defeat as Brendan Rodgers had in victory.

After a summer of gloom at St Mary's, when Southampton hosted its greatest exodus since the Cunard Line was in its prime, there was much to enthuse the Dutch coach.

Four debutants effortlessly slotted in to the team. And when right-back Nathaniel Clyne cancelled out Sterling's first-half strike with a thunderous drive into the top corner at the Kop end, Koeman's side looked more likely winners.

Even after Sturridge glanced the 79th-minute winner following a Sterling header, Mignolet was called upon to push Morgan Schneiderlin's late effort onto the bar.

"If we play like that, I don't think we will struggle," Koeman said .

Liverpool, despite their close second last May, also appear to have more convincing to do after losing such an iconic player.

For Rodgers, the challenge is 
recreating the form that took the club towards such giddy heights a few months ago. But since the departure of 
Suarez, there have been some surprisingly pessimistic assessments of Liverpool's chances, not only of repeating their title challenge, but actually retaining a top-four place.

Rodgers is entitled to be a tad bewildered by how swiftly his club's prospects have been dismissed, but being underestimated is a risk only to his rivals.

The manager's role in gelling the side has all but been ignored. One wonders how Liverpool languished in sixth, eighth and seventh in the Uruguayan's first three seasons if it was all about the South American?

This 90 minutes offered encouragement for those both championing and doubting Liverpool's prospects without Suarez.

They ground out the win, but also toiled for long periods and struggled to create the opportunities that have been their trademark for the last 18 months.

Southampton arrived as one of the two visiting clubs to win at Anfield last year, although they have undergone more facelifts than Joan Rivers since.

Three of their former players are at Liverpool. The Saints fans afforded Rickie Lambert a generous ovation as he faced his old club as a second-half substitute, but Dejan Lovren will have to wait to find redemption in their eyes. He was booed throughout.

Koeman initially set up his side to contain and goalkeeper Fraser Forster was not tested until 20 minutes when Sterling and the largely-nullified Philippe Coutinho combined on the edge of the box before the England winger fired tamely on goal.

The breakthrough came three minutes later as Jordan Henderson's piercing through ball sent Sterling scurrying clear.

He kept his composure to pick his spot beyond Forster. Sterling almost added a second on the stroke of half-time, but Mignolet was busy at the other end and Koeman's side emerged stronger after the break.

Clyne struck a brilliant equaliser on 56 minutes, benefiting from Dusan Tadic's clever back-heel.

Southampton were the more accomplished at this stage. Steven Davis should have put the visitors ahead on 63 minutes when he struck a shot weakly at Mignolet with time and space to pick his spot.

Just as the home side started to run out of ideas, Rodgers sent on Lambert for his debut.

The stadium seemed lifted by his presence and after the first spell of sustained pressure in the second half, Sturridge nudged in the winner.

It was tough on Koeman as Liverpool held on to give their campaign early momentum.

On the basis of this admirable performance, however, there will be some frantic reassessments by those who predicted that Southampton will be relegation fodder.

As for Liverpool, the demolition sites around the Main Stand are a hint regeneration will be the buzzword of the season as the club's owners - 
 Fenway Sports Group - awaits the green light for Anfield's redevelopment. For now, Sturridge and Sterling offer hope that the exit of Suarez will not shake the old ground as forcibly as some would have you believe. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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