With the Premier League title race already at unprecedented levels of nip and tuck, the manner of Manchester City’s crushing, ruthless victory over Chelsea will have caused hearts to sink over at Anfield.
City, after all, had not quite looked themselves of late. Pep Guardiola was bemoaning his side’s slow tempo even after some run-of-the-mill wins, and much more so after the defeats.
There was even a bit of sleepiness as Arsenal were seen off a week ago, and not much flair at Goodison Park in midweek. Yet here we are, at the end of this challenging three-game run, and City have won them all, finishing it off in brutal fashion to take them back to the top of the table.
If Liverpool harboured any hopes that Chelsea would frustrate City, or even beat them as they did in December, they were dashed in less than 15 minutes. In fact, in less than 25 minutes it was 4-0 to the hosts, a remarkable show of strength from a team who were, in reality, living a charmed life.
When Sergio Aguero missed an open goal for what would have made it 2-0, City fans could have been forgiven for thinking they might live to regret it. Guardiola, who threw himself to the floor in dismay, must have.
Yet it was the complete opposite. Everything they touched suddenly went in. Not long after, Aguero, determined to vanquish his own anger, got the ball 25 yards and decided to thrash it towards the top corner. He found it.
There were no problems with “forgetting to play”, as Guardiola has termed it, with City keeping the pressure up, pressure that led to a Ross Barkley header towards his own goal that only picked out Aguero. Normal service certainly resumed as the Argentine swivelled and found the bottom corner this time.
And when another loose Chelsea clearance only reached Ilkay Gundogan on the edge of the box, the German thought ‘why not?’ and had a go himself. Kepa Arrizabalaga might have saved it on another day, but not this one.
City actually struggled to get much of a foothold on the last 20 minutes and if that will not exactly give Liverpool much hope, given what transpired in the second half, it will concern Guardiola, who is gearing his team’s minds towards what it takes to win the Champions League. A spell like that could see Europe’s top clubs get a couple of away goals. But that’s for another day.
Chelsea, despite Maurizio Sarri’s efforts, are not currently one of Europe’s top clubs, and they could not make City pay, even if they did show flashes that their manager’s gameplan might yet work if given time.
But if the Londoners found a bit of fight to finish the first half, they could not find it again at the start of the second. City took control again and the brilliant Raheem Sterling, who kicked things off, won a penalty that Aguero put away for his hat-trick. The headlines will reflect his matching of Alan Shearer’s Premier League hat-trick record, the embarrassing miss long forgotten.
Sterling then added another with probably the most trademark of City goals – a David Silva through ball to the byline cut back by Oleksandr Zinchenko, for the England winger to fire home. That was for six, City scoring in all sorts of different ways.
It is a result that will reverberate around Europe, not least in a week that heralds the return of the Champions League. It is a result that will build confidence around the Etihad Stadium, as they prepare for big games in all four competitions.
And no doubt it will give Liverpool plenty to think about, if they haven’t already got enough on the plate given their game in hand over the blues is at Old Trafford in a fortnight.
Yet for all the excellent work that City showed in rounding off three big victories in the space of seven days, the nature of the title race means that even this absolute humbling of Chelsea is just another win.
In some ways this is the archetypal statement victory, yet we are so far from the finish line there is still time for the lead to change hands at least once. All that comes next, for both City and Liverpool, is yet another game they must win.
Guardiola’s men have found their groove, that’s what we can say for sure. They just need to stay in it for the next three or four months.