City slickers hit their stride
Once deemed the final piece in the jigsaw, then a cause of controversy, now the architect of their downfall, Gareth Barry has become a byword for bad tidings for Liverpool. This is the player for whom Rafa Benitez was willing to sacrifice Xabi Alonso, the one he really wanted when the club bought Robbie Keane and the man who became the reason for escalating tensions.
With him, there may have been no Alberto Aquilani. Without him, but partly because of him, Liverpool endured an unpleasant reminder of the new realities of life now their membership of the 'Big Four' has been revoked.
Because, after the 2008 tug of war over Barry and the 2009 decision to eschew Anfield for Manchester City came the 2010 goal against Liverpool, helping condemn Roy Hodgson to his first defeat in charge and, in a Premier League season that is only nine days old, providing Manchester City with a statement of intent that somehow still seems belated.
Barry's mere presence at Eastlands may be seen as proof that money trumps tradition. Perhaps it was ever thus, but it was certainly true over 90 minutes. Factor in a brace from Carlos Tevez, also subject of interest from Benitez and it amounted to expensive ambition 3, impoverished institution 0.
There is plenty of evidence of City's buying power. Their latest recruit provided more. James Milner's £26 million fee may have been the combined cost of Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, but, involved in the first two goals, this made for an auspicious debut nonetheless.
His deployment on the left intrigued, but Milner roamed intelligently, arriving on the right flank to supply Barry. Semi-fit and substandard for England in the summer, it was possible to wonder if he would be surplus to requirements when Roberto Mancini selected his strongest side. Milner emulated Barry by venturing up the M6 from Aston Villa and could have supplanted him; instead, both started and combined profitably.
Slick combination play involving Yaya Toure and Adam Johnson enabled the latter to free Milner. He cut his cross back for Barry to roll in a low shot.
Then City's new captain scored a 15-minute double. First Micah Richards rose to reach Milner's corner and Tevez may have turned his downward header over the line; he certainly claimed he did even if replays suggested otherwise. A rather more emphatic thump delivered the third from the penalty spot after Martin Skrtel tripped the rampant Adam Johnson.
"We played very, very well," said Mancini. The cosmopolitan nature of City's squad could obscure the English element to their side, but the manager said: "Tonight there were six English players on the pitch. That is important." The newest, Milner, came in for praise. "He is a different player because he has a good head, he has a good technique and he is strong," Mancini added.
City's strength includes their strength in depth. However, the twin criticisms were of kamikaze spending and a lack of kamikaze football. Sir Alex Ferguson, author of the first phrase, was at a ground he once deemed "the Temple of Doom", but which seemed satisfied enough. Present, too, was Sheikh Mansour, who financed the arrival of a team costing in excess of £150 million (the bench was another £80 million, while Robinho, Mario Balotelli, Aleksandar Kolarov, Jerome Boateng, Wayne Bridge and Roque Santa Cruz weren't involved at all).
"The owner is happy because he saw City beat Liverpool," said Mancini. Indeed, he witnessed a comprehensive victory, albeit one which revealed as much solidity as style. Johnson provided the latter, delivering some mesmerising dribbling, but if Mancini's formation was 4-2-3-1, it was notable that the man directly behind Tevez was Yaya Toure, one of the trio of inherently defensive midfielders the Italian favours.
It is a fine formation for a team with the lead, however, and Liverpool were limited to a handful of meaningful efforts, when they encountered an in-form goalkeeper. After Steven Gerrard struck the post, Joe Hart made a terrific double stop to deny David Ngog and Fernando Torres. "Joe saved very well," said his manager.
Barry, appearing unchecked in the visitors' penalty area, scored rather well. Another central midfielder to elude Liverpool is one they already own. "Javier Mascherano is not in the right frame of mind to play the game because his head has been turned by the offer from Barcelona," said a tetchy Hodgson, who believes the Spaniards have undervalued of the Argentine. "We are very, very far apart and unless that can be resolved, he might be unhappy for a long time to come." Between Mascherano and a mauling, it was hard to tell which had affected his mood more.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Adam Johnson - Almost struck with a crisp shot and his incisive running helped provide all three goals. He relished an evening against a makeshift left-back, in Daniel Agger, twisting and turning to devastating effect.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: It was probably their best performance since the Tevez-inspired demolition of Chelsea in February. Milner's fine form and Johnson's sublime skill mean Mancini has an enviable selection problem when Balotelli is fit. David Silva, an unused substitute, was rendered irrelevant by the two Englishmen on the wings.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Hodgson had branded himself "the ultimate anti-magic wand man" beforehand and magic was conspicuous by its absence. After the excellent display against Arsenal, this was a reversion to the more insipid performances that characterised last season. Torres made his first start of the season but, operating on the fringes of the game, didn't seem at his sharpest and it is understandable that there was a Mascherano-shaped hole in the midfield.