Manchester City 3 – 1 Liverpool – Champions reign supreme over last season’s runners up

Goals: 1-0 ’41 Jovetic; 2-0 ’54 Jovetic; 3-0 ’68 Aguero; 3-1 ’82  Zabaleta (OG)
Assists: Nasri; Navas
Red cards:
Top performance: Stevan Jovetic
Poorest performance: Alberto Moreno

With new signing, and former City striker, Mario Balotelli watching on from the stands, Liverpool deployed their now trademark high tempo, high pressing game for much of the first half at the Etihad, hustling Manchester City into a number of uncharacteristic mistakes and controlling the lionshare of a fascinatingly cagey encounter.

But if there was little for Manchester City fans to cheer in the opening 40 minutes, that all changed as half time approached. Hesitancy plagued the Liverpool backline as the ball was delivered from the right, David Silva couldn’t control, but Montenegran marksman Stevan Jovetic stepped on to the ball and rifled home for 1-0.

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Liverpool emerged from the tunnel early for the second half, but it was City who struck again – this time a breathtaking passing move culminating in another goal for Jovetic. Things went from bad to worse for Liverpool when Kun Aguero, on the pitch for no more than 15 seconds, was played in – once again from the right hand side – to coolly convert for 3-0. A late Zabaleta own goal provided little consolation for Liverpool as his team finished with ten men – Glen Johnson leaving the pitch injured.

How good were Manchester City, and how bad were Liverpool?

Manuel Pellegrini’s men struggled to impose themselves early in the game, as Liverpool pressed straight out of the blocks. A review of the headline stats shows that Liverpool certainly competed throughout the 90 minutes – the Merseyside team had more attempts on goal, more corners, and essentially matched their opponents in terms of passes made and completed, with the ball spending the same amount of time in each side’s half of the pitch.

However, in terms of which side posed the biggest threat, there can only be one answer. Although Liverpool toiled, and created some bright moments, very few actually led to clean cut chances being created. More often than not, City forced Liverpool wide, intercepting 80% of Liverpool’s 25+ crosses. By contrast, City scored three of their four efforts on target, and sliced through the Liverpool backline repeatedly, with slick passing and movement characterising their play – particularly down their right hand side. Ultimately, Brendan Rodgers’ men simply had no answer to the power, pace and ingenuity of City’s play, and were well beaten.

Have Liverpool improved their backline sufficiently?

Last season, when Liverpool visited the Etihad with a backline of Johnson, Cissokho, Skrtel and Sakho. Tonight, Cissohko and Sakho were replaced by new signings Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno – seemingly an attempt by manager Rodgers to improve his club’s relatively poor defensive record last season.

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Given this was his first taste of Premier League action, it was not surprising that Moreno occasionally struggled with the intensity of the game – never more so than in the moments leading up to both of Jovetic’s goals. Lovren also struggled, as Liverpool leaked three goals from their left hand side, and question marks also remain over the defensive ability of Glen Johnson, who had to limp off injured before the end of the game.

The defensive workrate of all eleven Liverpool players is one of the standout characteristics of their game – but then, it has to be, given their willingness to attack teams and commit men forward. One suspects that while Rodgers’ new signings may yet improve his sides defending, they remain better on the front foot. The team still don’t have the quality of defenders of the other top four teams, and tactically, it seems the manager has more work to do to get the balance between attack and defence right if they are to take on the top sides and triumph.

How important will Balotelli be to Liverpool?

Despite their defensive difficulties, it is the other end of the pitch that Rodgers has chosen to strengthen again this window, as the club continue to respond to losing the inimitable Luis Suarez earlier in the summer. Mario Balotelli, a potential bargain at £16m, has now joined the club, and the mercurial Italian certainly has the talent to fill the ‘goals gap’ left by Suarez that was evident in tonight’s game.

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Questions have been asked of whether Balotelli’s temperament will stop him from being a success at Liverpool, but just as crucial will be his impact on Daniel Sturridge. How will the England striker respond to potentially being denied the title of number one striker once again?

However, while the two may take time to gel, Sturridge demonstrated again tonight that drifting wide to the right is a key part of his game, regardless of who is on the pitch. Repeatedly in the first half, he and Sterling would start wide, allowing space for the other to burst into through the middle, or running inside the channel to receive possession themselves. Had Liverpool had a striker of the calibre of Balotelli on the pitch tonight, the game could have looked very different.

Are Liverpool and Manchester City really competing this season?

Although billed as a rematch between the top two from last season, Brendan Rodgers will know that in all likelihood, his side will not be going toe to toe with Manchester City this season.

Aided by the prolific Luis Suarez, and unburdened by European football, Liverpool were extraordinary for much of 2013/14. However, bereft of their biggest talent, with a number of new faces to bed in, and the demands of Champions League football to cope with, it is reasonable to expect Liverpool’s league performance to dip this year.

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Given the resources available to Manchester City and Chelsea, the fact that Liverpool have gotten close to the two title challengers is remarkable in itself. A quick review of the substitutes used by both sides tonight is instructive. Liverpool brought on Rickie Lambert, Emre Can and Lazar Markovic – all good players to be sure, yet in a different league compared to Aguero, Fernandinho and Navas who came on for City. Manchester City will undoubtedly be competing for the top spot; Liverpool will do very well to secure Champions League football again.

Overall verdict

For all the impressive commitment and dynamism of Liverpool in the opening phases of the game, Manchester City’s superior physicality, together with their ruthless efficiency in converting their chances led them to a comfortable victory in this early season clash between last season’s top two. Liverpool remain fragile at the back, and although Balotelli may add more presence up front, Rodgers’ men will continue to struggle if they cannot more effectively shut the opposition out. Stevan Jovetic starred for Manchester City, who together with Chelsea, look one of only two sides capable of taking the title this year.

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