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Champions floored by four; RAGGED REDS CRASH TO DEFEAT AS CELEBRATIONS OF FIRST TITLE IN 30 YEARS MUST SURELY HAVE TAKEN TOLL.

Byline: IAN DOYLE at the Etihad ian.doyle@reachplc.com @IANDOYLESPORT

THIS was a performance of champions from Liverpool. Champions, that is, who have spent much of the last week celebrating the fact.

How else to explain an almost comically bad first outing since ending the 30-year wait to claim the Holy Grail? The simmering fume from Jurgen Klopp on the touchline was enough to heat the entire Etihad as his Reds slumped to a dreadful defeat at Manchester City.

Plenty will be made about Pep Guardiola's outgoing title holders sending a statement of intent for next season, particularly if Kevin De Bruyne can maintain the kind of mesmeric form Liverpool found impossible to contain.

But if this resounding hammering underlines one thing, it is that Klopp was right last week to ponder publicly how his team have managed to be so far clear of a City side that, on their day, are almost impossible to stop.

Liverpool have been remarkable this campaign, setting a new standard by which all other Premier League clubs will now be gauged.

Nobody has ever clinched the title with seven games to spare. And, to crib a Klopp quote, the book hasn't been written on how to play out the remainder of the campaign with the job having been done in record time.

Whatever said tome contains, it certainly won't encourage what happened here, Liverpool letting themselves down in hugely uncharacteristic fashion.

When Klopp's side lost 5-0 at the Etihad back in September 2017, the margin of defeat could be attributed to being reduced to 10 men for much of the game due to Sadio Mane's first-half red card.

This time, the Reds at times looked to be playing with about three of four - if they were lucky.

Indeed, their performance in part appeared as disinterested as City's players and staff were with honour for the new champions.

In truth, the response of the home team before kick-off said an awful lot more than their subsequent display.

While Guardiola and some of his players have been kind in their words for the runaway title winners, clearly there was little appetite for a grand show of respect. And there's nothing wrong with that.

These two teams will be the main challengers next season, and if this game reminds Liverpool there can't be any complacency as they begin to contemplate the defence of their title, then it will have served a vital purpose.

After all, it was only a second league defeat of the season, a mere seventh loss in 104 top-flight games - an astonishing illustration of their consistency over the last three years.

It was inevitable there would be a drop-off at some point, albeit maybe not one quite this spectacular.

If Liverpool's identity is their intensity, then this was a graphic demonstration of what can occur Klopp has one ongoing cause for concern. Liverpool haven't scored on the road since Sadio Mane netted at Norwich City in February, with the sequence of away blanks now up to five games - their worst such run since April 1992.

That statistic will increase discussion over the need to reinforce the forward line during the forthcoming transfer window, despite every indication that isn't, at the present time, on the agenda.

Klopp had already made a gesture of his own before the match with his team selection, naming the same team that dismantled Crystal Palace eight days earlier.

After a couple of days celebrating - the squad were granted their request of an extra day off - the Reds were back working at Melwood. But it is only human the edge to their game has been blunted by achieving their goal.

It wasn't entirely one-way traffic here. Liverpool, their high pressing causing City a number of problems, wasted some good positions either with a poor final pass or frustratingly making the wrong decision.

Mohamed Salah came closest when, having earlier been denied by Ederson, he struck the post after good work from the otherwise anonymous Roberto Firmino.

City, though, weren't as profligate when the opportunities came their way, although they were aided by some uncharacteristically appalling Liverpool defending as fireworks - presumably from mischievous Reds fans celebrating nearby - pierced the eerie quiet of the Etihad.

Joe Gomez was the most culpable, stupidly hauling down Raheem Sterling for a penalty that was tucked away by the irrepressible De Bruyne on 25 minutes.

Having been too close to his England team-mate in that instance, Gomez was too far away 10 minutes later when Sterling netted from Phil Foden's pass before, on the stroke of half-time, Andy Robertson's mindless rush out of the back line allowed De Bruyne to pick out Foden for the third.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, in attempting to keep out Sterling's shot after an umpteenth City breakaway, was unfortunate to put into his own net on 65 minutes, and while Liverpool's overall play perhaps merited a goal - Mane somehow forgetting to shoot when a tap-in was all that was required - their defending indicated City could have had a lot, lot more.

So, now what? City's records are still in reach - none of Liverpool's six remaining games will be as difficult as this - but Klopp will now surely give fringe players and youngsters more minutes, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita and Neco Williams - again - improving matters from the bench. This wasn't the way the Reds would have envisaged starting their month-long victory lap.

But, after such sustained brilliance over two years, Klopp's side could probably be forgiven an off night.

Even if it was as horrible to MATCH FACTS MANCHESTER CITY (4-2-3-1): Ederson, Walker (Joao Cancelo 73), Eric Garcia, Laporte (Otamendi 79), Mendy, Rodri, Gundogan, Foden, De Bruyne, Sterling (Bernardo Silva 79), Gabriel Jesus (Mahrez 58). Subs not used: Bravo, Stones, Zinchenko, David Silva, Doyle.

LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Alisson, Alexander-Arnold (Williams 76), Gomez (Oxlade-Chamberlain 45), van Dijk, Robertson, Henderson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum (Keita 62), Salah, Firmino (Origi 62), Mane (Minamino 84). Subs not used: Milner, Adrian, Jones, Elliott. GOALS: De Bruyne pen 25, Sterling 35, Foden 45, Oxlade-Chamberlain og 66.

BOOKINGS: Mendy, Walker; Gomez, Henderson. REFEREE: Anthony Taylor (Cheshire).

CAPTION(S):

Raheem Sterling goes down for the penalty after grappling with Joe Gomez MATT MCNULTY

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (left) turns Raheem Sterling's shot into his own net for Manchester City's fourth goal against Liverpool BRADLEY ORMESHER
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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:IAN DOYLE at the Etihad ian.doyle@reachplc.com @IANDOYLESPORT
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jul 3, 2020
Words:1047
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