Pep Guardiola formed his team into a socially distanced guard of honour to applaud Liverpool on to their pitch in their first match since replacing Manchester City as Premier League champions. It is a tradition some players notoriously dislike doing but remains an impressive sign of respect in the game here, but that is where the friendliness, faux or otherwise, ended last night.
Liverpool, champions with a modern-day record seven matches to go have nothing left to play for but personal records this season, while Pep’s City are targetting the FA Cup and Champions League as well as plotting their revenge on Klopp’s side next season.
A reminder of the occasion was a sustained burst of a box or two of fireworks somewhere near the stadium shortly after kick-off, presumably a celebratory box from those of a Liverpool persuasion. But that is where the party remained – off the pitch – as City scored three times in the first half alone.
Liverpool started as if they needed the win, pressing without the ball and passing swiftly in possession. A trademark long through ball to Mo Salah ended in a lovely snapshot half volley from the Egyptian forward and Ederson had to save smartly to his left. There had already been time for Gabriel Jesus, in for the injured Sergio Aguero, to have an effort disallowed for offside at the other end.
The trend continued with both sides looking to get forward at every opportunity in a fitting opening to a match between the league’s top two teams.
City’s superior midfield slowly got a grip on the game, however, and Liverpool got picked off twice quite easily as the Champions fell behind to a De Bruyne penalty and a well taken Sterling goal.
Liverpool were very much in the game with 25 minutes gone when Sterling turned Joe Gomez inside out and the England defender mauled his international team-mate about three times before referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the penalty spot.
Gomez and Sterling had a notorious clash on international duty last November when the City striker was the guilty party. This time he let his feet do the talking and Gomez was left far from happy again.
Penalties without crowds to add to the drama seem to lack jeopardy and De Bruyne sent Allison the wrong way with his spot kick like it was a training exercise. The celebration was real, though, as were the cheers from the City bench and substitutes scattered in the seats in front of the press box.
Liverpool hit back with a couple of promising breaks but they were two down ten minutes later. Their midfield and defence were carved open by Jesus and Phil Foden, who let De Bruyne go on a decoy run and picked out Sterling and he beat Gomez again before lifting a shot past Allison at his near post.
Foden, one of four changes from City’s FA Cup winning side against Newcastle at the weekend, will probably be handed the chance to replace the brilliant but departing David Silva next season.
And he made an even greater impact on the match when he scored City’s third in time added on at the end of the first half. The England teenager played a one-two with De Bruyne and gave Allison ‘the eyes’ as he scored with a perfect right foot shot. Such composure. Such talent.
Klopp and Guardiola were as animated as ever on the touchline, possibly knowing there were markers to be laid for future more meaningful battles next season. And the Liverpool manager betrayed his concern by withdrawing Gomez in favour of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the start of the second half.
Liverpool did not give up, far from it, but rarely looked like scoring apart from a Trent Alexander-Arnold free-kick which went narrowly wide of a post and a blocked Firmino shot around the hour mark.
But it was on 66 minutes that Liverpool’s frailties were exposed again and they found themselves four goals down. Rodri and then De Bruyne combined to again pick out Sterling and another wriggle in the area allowed him space to shoot and Oxlade-Chamberlain ultimately turned the ball into the net for an own goal.
City substitute celebrated a fifth City goal in injury time but it was ruled out by an unexpected VAR decision.
Klopp let his players take the glory of the guard of honour, preferring to take his place in the Liverpool dug-out pre-match and of course this match will not in anyway go down in history when his side’s first title in 30 years is recalled for years to come.
This was still a humbling evening for the German coach and his players, but one that will serve as a reminder that winning the trophy is one thing but retaining it could be all that much harder.
Ederson 6, Walker 6 (Cancelo 73), Garcia 5, Laporte 7 (Otamendi 79), Mendy 7, De Bruyne 9, Gundogan 6, Rodri 7, Foden 8, Sterling 8 ( B Silva 79), Jesus 5 (Mahrez 58).
Subs: Bravo, Stones, Zinchenko, Doyle.
Alisson 6, Alexander-Arnold 6 (Williams 76), Gomez 4 (Oxlade-Chamberlain 45), Van Dijk 6, Robertson 6, Henderson 6, Fabinho 5, Wijnaldum 6 (Keita 62), Salah 6, Firmino 6 (Origi 62), Mane 6 (Minamino 85).
Subs: Adrian, Milner, Jones, Elliott, Williams.