Monday, 18 August 2014

Sterling and Sturridge strike to sink Saints

Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge struck to eke out a 2-1 win in a nervy opening day at Anfield.

Unconvincing and vulnerable, the Reds were thoroughly tested by a Southampton side determined to prove that their re-built squad is good enough to keep them in the Premier League following their summer fire sale.

The fact that nearly half of the players sold in that fire sale left to join Liverpool only provided the Saints additional motivation to perform well in their opening day fixture at Anfield, although they only came up against one of their former employees, at least to start with.

With Lallana injured and Lambert on the bench, Lovren was the only former Southampton player to start for Liverpool, being routinely booed by the travelling contingent of fans, but impressing Kopites. His calming presence at the back and passing range are promising, although the Reds’ defence undoubtedly has much more work to do; they were exposed by the Saints’ attack on several occasions during a difficult second half.

However, the hosts began in the ascendancy, enjoying 70% of possession during the first 15 minutes. Frustratingly, though, their cutting edge was blunted, Sturridge’s 20-yard shot the only attempt at goal of note.

Thankfully, his strike partner Raheem Sterling started where he left off last season; in top form. After seeing Forster easily save his shot following clever work by Coutinho down the left wing, the 19-year old broke the deadlock midway through the first half. Henderson did very well to win the ball back in his own half, shrugging off Schneiderlin and sending a perfect pass through for Sterling, who calmly slotted home when in a one-on-one situation with the keeper.

Sterling could be a star this season
Undeterred, Southampton responded, and were arguably the better team for the rest of the first half, if not the rest of the match. They tested Simon Mignolet twice five minutes before the break, the Belgian easily collecting James Ward-Prowse’s curled effort and then superbly turning want-away Schneiderlin’s effort over the bar.

Little changed after the interval; Ronald Koeman’s men continued to play pressing football, noticeably growing in confidence, while the Anfield crowd became increasingly nervous. It came as no surprise when the visitors equalised in quite impressive fashion.

Nathaniel Clyne played a clever one-two with Dusan Tadic in the box, the latter excellently wrong-footing Lovren and back-heeling beautifully into Clyne’s path. The 23-year old right back rocketed the ball into the net from close range, giving Mignolet no chance whatsoever.

Confidence flowing through their team, Southampton didn’t settle for a point, instead attempting to exploit the gaps in Liverpool’s defence, capitalise on their momentum and clinch all three points. They went extremely close to doing so only seven minutes after Clyne had levelled.

Tadic fed the free James Ward-Prowse, who squared to the unmarked Steven Davis. One-on-one with Mignolet from ten yards out, the Northern Irish midfielder who shares a name with a snooker player bottled it, his weak effort easily saved by Mignolet.

It was a wake-up call for Liverpool, who should have been one goal behind by that stage. Missing the departed Luis Suarez, the Reds seemed stuck for ideas as to how to regain the ascendancy and grab a winner. It was the sort of game that, in previous seasons, the Merseysiders would have relied on a piece of magic from the talented Uruguayan to secure a win. Without him, Liverpool laboured for long spells with nothing to show for it.

That was until the introduction of Rickie Lambert gave the Reds the added impetus needed to push on and claim the victory. The ex-Southampton striker was welcomed onto the pitch by both sets of supporters and instantly made a difference, lifting the crowd and providing a focal point for the Reds’ attack.

It seemed all set up for Lambert to net the winner and ensure a fairy tale ending, but it didn’t quite go to plan, not that relieved Reds will be complaining that it was Sturridge rather than Lambert who nicked the decisive goal.

A direct ball into the box was half cleared to Sterling, who cleverly headed it in the direction of Sturridge. Despite having little impact on the game up to that point- out of the 22 players who started the match only Forster had had fewer touches- Sturridge got something on the ball and managed to turn it into the net to score what turned out to be a scrappy winner.

Sturridge scored a scrappy winner
Of course, Liverpool didn't make it easy for themselves in the closing stages. Having only 20% of possession in the final ten minutes, the Reds were pinned back by Southampton, who pressed relentlessly and went very close to scoring the equaliser their performance merited.

Just like the opening match of last season versus Stoke, Liverpool had to rely on some brilliance from Simon Mignolet to secure all three points. This time, the Belgian stopper superbly tipped Schneiderlin’s powerful effort onto the underside of the bar, and Long fortunately squandered a great chance from the rebound, heading the loose ball wide when he really should have scored.

The fact that the match ended with Liverpool keeping the ball in the corner spoke volumes about the nature of the contest; nervy and uncomfortable, the Reds just did everything they could to eke a win out by any means. In the end, they won while playing badly, which is said to be the sign of champions.

Brendan Rodgers’ men will have to perform much better than that for the rest of the season, though, if they are to have any hopes of lifting the title.


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