The moment that best summed up the difference between Mario Balotelli’s old club and his new one arrived midway through the second half and a few seconds after Sergio Agüero, one of the more formidable strikers in the industry, had run on to the field as a substitute. Agüero’s first touch was to control a through-ball from Jesús Navas and his second put it past Simon Mignolet as though it were the most normal thing in the world. What a way to introduce himself and what a devastating reminder of Manchester City’s extra quality.
Stevan Jovetic had already provided a couple of his own reminders with the opening goals on the night City joined Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea City in starting the season with back-to-back wins.
Liverpool had actually matched the champions for long periods and Balotelli, from his vantage point in the Colin Bell stand, might still have been left with the impression they are a better team now than in his last spell in English football. Yet this also was the first occasion when it became clear how much Liverpool might miss the penetrative qualities of Luis Suárez. The away side had plenty of the ball.
They made every kind of pass, indeed, apart from the killer one. They had been the better side until Jovetic’s first goal, five minutes before the break, but they never played with the menace that was associated with Liverpool last season and did not threaten Joe Hart’s goal with any sustained momentum until a header from their substitute, Rickie Lambert, came back off the goalkeeper and went in off Pablo Zabaleta seven minutes from the end.
It was typical of Brendan Rodgers’ team that, briefly, they still thought they could complete a late comeback but it was always unrealistic and almost out of the question when Glen Johnson went off with a groin injury, leaving them with only 10 players on the field. Liverpool’s manager had already used his three substitutes and City withheld an initial flurry before seeing out the final exchanges without too much trouble.
Pellegrini’s team have started the season as if they mean business and it must be ominous for their rivals that he admitted afterwards the champions had not fully clicked. Yaya Touré did not look his usual commanding self, much like his performance at Newcastle on the opening weekend. Edin Dzeko had a frustrating night before taking a kick to the thigh, paving the way for Agüero to replace him, and Liverpool must have been slightly bemused that they could find themselves 3-0 behind when few visiting teams to this stadium have so much of the ball.
Unfortunately for them it was their defending that let them down last season and this defeat was another reminder that they cannot be so loose at the back. Jovetic’s first goal was a particular ordeal for Liverpool’s new left-back, Alberto Moreno, and Dejan Lovren, another of their summer signings, will not enjoy the replays of Agüero’s goal. “We have to be tighter than that, get up to people,” Rodgers said. “They were poor goals.”
For Liverpool there was an element of déjà vu about what went wrong. “You can spend as much money as you like, it doesn’t guarantee you anything,” Rodgers added.
Jovetic’s first season in Manchester was almost written off by injuries but his talent has never been in question and it was an emphatic right-foot shot he struck beneath Mignolet for the first goal. Yet Rodgers was entitled to be aggrieved by the defending. Lovren had nodded the ball away from David Silva and the only requirement for Moreno was to get his clearance out of the penalty area. It was a lazy swing of his left boot that allowed the alert Jovetic to pinch the ball.
Until that point City had struggled to get behind the visiting defence. Liverpool started the game with a good structure and, much like their visit to this stadium last season, no sense whatsoever of being overcome by caution. City’s home record over the last three seasons incorporates only three defeats but Rodgers always sets up his side to take the game to the opposition and that meant Zabaleta and Gaël Clichy, City’s overlapping full-backs, were reluctant to break forward as much as usual.
Clichy, in particular, had to worry about the pace and directness of Raheem Sterling but one of City’s great strengths is the way they gang up on the opposition full-backs in wide positions and it was noticeable that when Zabaleta did start venturing forward more regularly it helped Jovetic to his second goal, turning in Samir Nasri’s pass from the right.
For Liverpool Daniel Sturridge was denied a goal for offside early in the second half and could also reflect on their most inviting chance of the opening period, when he eluded Vincent Kompany but could not get his shot past Hart. Philippe Coutinho and Sterling faded and the bottom line was that Liverpool did not have the same threat without Suárez. Balotelli, according to Rodgers, is a “calculated risk”. It is easier now to understand why he has taken it.