Liverpool suffer familiar dismantling
It was a return to the dark days of a few years ago as Manchester City eased past a competent Liverpool side that still can't iron the defensive mistakes out of their game, whoever plays at the back.
Amid the euphoria of Mario Balotelli's return to England, a decision that appeared to leave fans of both clubs intrigued and delighted, both managers spoke with a certain caution before the game.
Manuel Pellegrini talked about City not being up to full speed yet, with a number of players still feeling a little summer fatigue, while Brendan Rodgers emphasised the 36 games that would still be left to play afterward.
In the end, it was the Liverpool boss who needed the crutch of rationalisation more as Pellegrini's side, without ever hitting the heights everyone knows they are capable of on home soil, eased to a 3-1 win.
For once, City did not need their annual goal against the Reds from a corner kick, making the most of errors, particularly for the opener. Up until then Liverpool had been efficient and calm, almost authoritative, in fact, without ever really causing the home side too much grief.
Crosses were launched into City's penalty area without there ever being the numbers of red jerseys that might create problems. In fact, the home side either played well within themselves, adopting a cautionary approach dependent upon Liverpool errors, or they had simply been out-thought.
Daniel Sturridge was once again alone up front, with Raheem Sterling causing trouble on the wing. His battle with Gael Clichy was fascinating, but with few clear chances carved out, the City man was ahead on points and was rarely troubled after City went ahead. Sturridge did get away from Vincent Kompany once, through his own ingenuity rather than a carved-out chance, but shot straight at Joe Hart.
At the back, the new left-sided partnership of Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno looked solid, with the full-back also purposeful coming forward. It was a great shame that it was his poor attempt at a clearance that helped Stevan Jovetic to open the scoring, slightly against the run of play.
Time is at a premium in England, decisions and clearances need to be made in an instant. There was enough to admire in the former Sevilla man's debut performance for it to be seen already as an astute signing, but he will need plenty of character to put this lapse behind him. It should have been a right-footed clearance, but the flimsy, casual flick with his left was pounced upon by a gifted player clearly in excellent form.
That put the visitors in a tight spot. City had already shown enough patience to know they would not be hurried even at 0-0, but a goal to the good they had all the time in the world to wait for another Liverpool mistake.
Sturridge scored from a marginally offside position, but there were still signs of laxity, notably from Philippe Coutinho, who rarely excels on away grounds and was inevitably replaced on the hour mark. By that time, City were two in front thanks to that man Jovetic again. He loves facing Liverpool, all the way back to his Fiorentina days.
Fans have often grumbled about the previous owners' failure to snap up the Montenegrin when Rafa Benitez wanted him, and those grumbles will have grown even louder now.
Like Southampton last week and Chelsea in April, City had kept calm and waited to snap up the crumbs from Liverpool's table. At Anfield, also in April, City had been too open for their own good and suffered early setbacks that cost them. This performance proved that Pellegrini had learned his lesson well.
On occasion, it was hard to decipher who was the home team, but with 30 minutes left to play there was no disputing who was in charge. Moreno came forward well but passed when a shot was the better option, a mistake repeated by substitute Lazar Markovic a minute later. That kind of poor judgment can be put down to new-boy deference, and when they play a few more games, they will become greedier in front of goal.
Lulled to sleep by a City substitution, Lovren fatally lost Sergio Aguero 23 seconds after the Argentine's introduction and the game was all over. All that was left to do was save face. It's sad that Rickie Lambert didn't even get the consolation goal, but there was no inclination to celebrate it anyway. As a number of players started to drop to the ground, injury was being added to insult, and hopefully the only thing left damaged by the weekend will be the players' pride.
Few teams will go to the Etihad and even draw. Rodgers did that in his first season and was narrowly and slightly unfairly denied a point in his second, but his team were well beaten this time around. This was not the humiliation of the Roy Hodgson or Kenny Dalglish seasons but was still a harsh lesson.
Playing Sturridge as a solo front man may have already had its day. You pick more midfielders and you ordinarily have a right to expect a more disciplined defensive performance, merely from sheer weight of numbers, but players like Coutinho have little to offer in that department. For a player on his debut in a new country often left unprotected, Alberto Moreno did enough to suggest he will be fine, but mistakes must be eradicated quickly.
Balotelli will have seen a side crying out for his opportunism, presence and unpredictability. Twice now the mere addition of Lambert has caused opponents a few nerves and problems, so for the sacrifice of an extra man in the middle who provides little defensive protection anyway, Balotelli and Sturridge may well get numerous chances to form the kind of lethal partnership the latter had with Luis Suarez.
Rodgers was no doubt correct in saying this match came far too early in the season for accurate predictions to be made about the rest of it, but he would have much preferred to be the manager not clutching straws so soon.
With seven new players to bed in, nobody is expecting miracles -- least of all against the champions on their own turf. It did demonstrate, however, that a lot of work needs to be done. With four goals already conceded, it's an old wound that has reopened at an entirely inappropriate moment.