RAHEEM STERLING would have found it more humbling than most to applaud Liverpool’s champions on to the Etihad pitch in a guard of honour.
Since forcing an acrimonious move to Manchester City in 2015, the England winger had failed to score in ten competitive meetings with his old club.
And the last time, they had met in November, he’d lost his rag with Joe Gomez, squaring up to the Liverpool defender on the Anfield pitch – then getting him in a headlock in the St George’s Park canteen after they’d met up with England the following day.
So after the dinner-time dust-up – for which Sterling was dropped for England’s thrashing of Montenegro – here was a chilled dish of revenge.
Sterling embarrassed Gomez for City’s first two goals – first winning a penalty, which Kevin De Bruyne converted, then skinning his England team-mate to score the second.
For Pep Guardiola, it must have tasted bitter-sweet to witness his team filleting Liverpool, having allowed them to open up an unassailable 23-point gap at the top.
How could a team this good have allowed the other lot to leave them as a dot in the rearview mirror?
He’d demanded his men must prove themselves all over again and they heeded their manager’s words.
This was like a premature Community Shield – meaningless on the face of it, but with the victors keen to see it as a statement for the season ahead.
It was only the second time Liverpool had lost a league match since they last came here 18 months ago.
Klopp may see it as a hungover irrelevance, or perhaps as a useful warning against any complacency when they set about defending their title in the autumn.
Guardiola and his coaching team had joined their playing squad to line up and hand a polite round of applause as the champions took to the Etihad pitch.
It would have been fascinating to know how many City fans might have applauded Klopp’s men – the rivalry has been intense at terrace level since Liverpool supporters arranged the City team bus before the 2018 Champions League quarter-final.
Instead, there was just a perfunctory announcement from City’s PA man: “We now welcome the Premier League champions Liverpool Football Club with a guard of honour.”
The last time Liverpool visited, in January 2019, the atmosphere had been crackling, the contest thrilling, and City had sneaked a 2-1 victory which ended up being decisive in last season’s title race.
This time, the behind-closed-doors experience was especially weird – to witness two of the finest teams on the planet, competing fiercely and at high tempo, in near silence was a strange kind of voyeurism.
Klopp’s men could have been forgiven for being on the pop for the previous seven days – the rest of their city seemed to have been.
Yet this is not the great Liverpool team of the 1970s and 80s – who drank and caroused as wholeheartedly as they played – many of Klopp’s side are teetotal and they were motivated enough to make a brisk start.
Having taken City’s title, they were after their Premier League record of 100 points – and they will now need to win five of their final six matches to overhaul that mark.
Within five minutes, Salah chested down a lofted pass from Jordan Henderson and forced Ederson into an athletic save, with Roberto Firmino failing to snaffle up the afters.
Klopp had stuck with his A team, which had flattened Crystal Palace 4-0 the last time out, while Guardiola handed starts to Phil Foden and Eric Garcia, the two City kids most likely to establish themselves in the first team next term.
Soon, Firmino slipped in Salah, who walloped one against the post with Ederson well beaten.
Yet City had also been lively in attack and, had Gabriel Jesus been able to stay onside, they might have had a couple before the breakthrough arrived on 24 minutes.
Sterling, with his back to his old sparring partner Gomez, wriggled around him artfully and was wrestled to the floor by the Liverpool defender.
Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot and De Bruyne – who has comprehensively ended City’s penalty phobia – sent Allison the wrong way.
De Bruyne, as if personally offended by that guard of honour, produced a pearler of a pass but Jesus wasted the chance.
It was high-tempo stuff all round, with Ederson having to charge out of his area to tackle Salah, who’d been released by Fabinho.
The second goal was a classic City counter-attacking effort, ending with an angled pass from Foden to Sterling, who cut inside Gomez and finished unfussily.
Then came Foden’s moment, a cute one-two with De Bruyne and a thumping finish over Allison.
City were straight back at it after the interval – Sterling scurrying through and having a shot deflected wide, Foden having a shot cleared off the line by Virgil van Dijk.
Kyle Walker upended Sadio Mane on the edge of the area – inches away from conceding a penalty – but City soon made it four.
This time, De Bruyne’s cut pass allowed Sterling to cut inside Andy Robertson and shoot, with Liverpool sub Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain diverting into his own net as he attempted to clear.
Sub Riyad Mahrez thought he had made it 5-0 in the final minute but his goal was chalked off after the ball bounced off Phil Foden’s arm in the build-up.
It was brutal from City, but was it irrelevant? We must wait until next season to find out.