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By Simon Evans
LIVERPOOL, England, Aug 17 (Reuters) - Strikers Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge helped Liverpool begin the post-Luis Suarez era with a 2-1 victory over a new-look Southampton at Anfield on Sunday.
It was far from a classic performance from Liverpool against a Southampton team that had clearly been well-drilled by new Dutch manager Ronald Koeman.
But Anfield boss Brendan Rodgers was delighted to have picked up three points from a game they could easily have lost.
”We had to grind out a result,“ Rodgers told reporters. ”Today was a brilliant win for us because it was a tough game, the first game and we had to really grind it out at the end.
“I am really happy with the determination and character to win a football match that the team showed. As the season rolls on we will get better and more fluid,” he said.
Rodgers, who said he received a “lovely text message” from Suarez before the game wishing the team well, will be pleased to have seen goals from the two young strikers he named in the starting line-up.
Suarez’s 31 goals helped Liverpool to second place in the Premier League last season, but the controversial Uruguayan was sold to Barcelona after receiving a four-month ban for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during the World Cup.
His sale helped fund around 100 million pounds ($166.95 million) of new arrivals, but it was Suarez’s former strike partners who delivered.
Sterling gave the hosts the lead in the 23rd minute after England team mate Jordan Henderson won the ball in midfield and then delivered a perfect, cross field, long through ball which Sterling collected and confidently drove home.
But despite the setback Southampton, who sold a number of key players during the close-season, including three to Liverpool, grew into the game with the imposing Kenyan Victor Wanyama taking charge of the centre of midfield.
A dangerous dipping free kick from James Ward-Prowse and then a drive Morgan Schneiderlin, a transfer target for Tottenham, both forced good saves out of Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet.
Eleven minutes after the break the Saints got their reward when right back Nathaniel Clyne burst down the flank, found Dusan Tadic inside who returned the pass with a superb back-heel which Clyne fired home with power.
Of the trio traded from the south coast to Merseyside in the close-season only Croatian defender Dejan Lovren started, with striker Rickie Lambert on the bench and midfielder Adam Lallana injured.
While Lovren was jeered throughout by the visiting fans, Lambert was cheered - even when he came on as a 76th minute substitute.
While Lambert saw little of the ball, his introduction proved to be a smart move from Rodgers who said he believed the target man “unsettled” the Southampton defence which had previously looked solid.
With 11 minutes remaining, Wanyama failed to clear a Henderson cross and Sterling headed a loose ball into the path of Sturridge who poked home the winner.
The former Chelsea forward scored 21 goals last season and with his understanding with Sterling, Liverpool have a potency in attack, even without the extra striker that Rodgers says he wants to bring in.
There was a late scare for Liverpool when Schneiderlin unleashed a fierce shot which Mignolet tipped onto the underside of the crossbar, with Shane Long heading the follow-up just wide.
Despite the loss Koeman was pleased with the display his team had produced in his first Premier League game in charge.
”We played a great pressing (game) in the second half and at 1-1 there was one team on the pitch playing and it was Southampton - we did everything well apart from scoring a second.
“But the quality of Liverpool is that they don’t need too many opportunities to score two goals,” he said.
$1 = 0.5990 British Pounds Additional reporting by Josh Reich, editing by Pritha Sarkar