LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — Daniel Sturridge ensured Liverpool began the post-Luis Suarez era in victorious fashion, scoring a late goal to seal a 2-1 win over Southampton in their first match of the Premier League season on Sunday.
Much will be expected of Sturridge this season after the summer departure of his strike partner and the England international showed his poacher's instinct with a close-range finish in the 79th minute at Anfield.
That salvaged three points from an unconvincing start to the new campaign for last season's runner-up, which took the lead through Raheem Sterling in the 23rd but lacked urgency for much of the game without the effervescent Suarez.
"No disrespect to Luis, he's a great player and will be missed but we move on," said Sturridge, who was the second-highest scorer in the Premier League last season — behind Suarez — with 21 goals. "We have proved we can win games and score goals."
A new-look Southampton, which lost a slew of its best players this summer, equalized in the 56th when Nathaniel Clyne slammed a fierce shot into the top corner and had chances to go ahead before Sturridge came to Liverpool's rescue.
Even then, the victory was only just preserved as Morgan Schneiderlin struck the bar for Southampton in the 88th minute and substitute Shane Long headed the rebound just wide.
"After 1-1, I think it was one team on the pitch playing," Southampton manager Ronald Koeman said. "But the quality of Liverpool, they don't need a lot of opportunities to score two goals."
In these early days of the season, teams will take wins however they come as players readjust to English football after the World Cup and gradually improve fitness. Tottenham and Arsenal — likely top-four rivals for Liverpool — both needed late goals to secure wins on Saturday.
"We had to grind it out today," said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, who revealed that Suarez had sent him a text before kickoff to wish the team good luck. "As the season rolls on, we'll get more fluent."
It's been a busy summer for Rodgers, who used the proceeds of the sale of Suarez to Barcelona for 75 million pounds ($130 million) to spend about 100 million pounds on new signings to bolster the squad for the extra fixtures that will come from playing in the Champions League.
Three of the new recruits came from Southampton — Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert — and Lovren started here, earning the Croatia center back boos and jeers throughout from away fans. Lambert came on as a second-half substitute and caused problems.
The impact of Suarez's departure was clear to see, though, with Liverpool lacking spark going forward and Sturridge often appearing isolated without his strike partner. The goal came from one of the few chances he had and Sturridge now has 36 goals from his first 50 league appearances for Liverpool.
With Suarez gone and Rodgers playing only one up front in Sturridge, Liverpool will need more goals from midfielders this season and Sterling showed good composure with his finish.
The home crowd had been getting restless after a slow opening 20 minutes but came to life after Jordan Henderson won the ball in midfield, beat Schneiderlin in a 50-50 tackle and sent a glorious long ball through to Sterling. One on one with goalkeeper Fraser Forster, the England winger slipped a low shot into the bottom corner.
Little was expected of Southampton after its summer fire-sale but in Dusan Tadic, the south-coast team looks to have a new player who can excite its fans.
Impressive in the first half, the Serbia winger — signed from Dutch club FC Twente — made Clyne's equalizer with an exquisite back-heel into the path of the right back, who thumped a shot into the top corner at the near post.
Liverpool fell off the pace at the start of the second half and Steven Davis sidefooted a great chance at goalkeeper Simon Mignolet on the hour mark.
The introduction of substitutes Joe Allen and Lambert pepped up Liverpool and when Sterling sent a header back into the danger area after a cross had been partially cleared, Sturridge pounced to begin the season as he finished the last.