First blood to Manchester City in the battle of the Premier League’s leading lights – just.
After a joyous June and a low-key July, August began with disappointment for Liverpool, beaten on penalties by their old foes in the Community Shield at Wembley.
Not the start Jurgen Klopp would have hoped for in terms of result, but his side will head into their season opener with Norwich on Friday with renewed confidence after an excellent second-half display against Pep Guardiola’s relentless champions.
Second best in the first 45 minutes, and behind to Raheem Sterling’s early goal, the challengers battered City after the break.
They hit the woodwork twice through Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah before substitute Joel Matip headed them level 12 minutes from time. It was just reward for a performance dripping with poise, power and purpose.
In the shootout, Gini Wijnaldum’s miss proved costly. Liverpool converted four of their five spot-kicks, but Claudio Bravo’s save from the Dutchman was decisive.
Gabriel Jesus was the man who struck the winner to spark celebrations from Guardiola and his men.
“A final”, the City boss called this, and he meant it. He was booked in the first half for protesting against a Joe Gomez challenge on David Silva, and wore the smile of a man for whom this victory meant something.
If the suspicion was that Liverpool had operated close to their peak last season, and that City may find things a little more comfortable this time around, it can be parked for now.
The Reds say that Champions League success has made them hungry for more, and they backed up their words here. "The least we deserved was the equaliser," said Klopp afterwards. "One save decided it and I cannot be disappointed today. The performance was much more important today than a win.
"We know we are still here, we can still play proper football."
He got that right. Here, they looked fit, sharp and, after a difficult opening spell, had the measure of their enemy in terms of fitness and quality. "In the last 15 minutes we were exhausted," said Guardiola. They looked it. Liverpool had more shots, more corners and more possession. How they didn’t win the game in 90 minutes, only Salah will know.
The Egyptian tormented City throughout. He sent three efforts off target in the first half, then smashed the foot of the post in the second. After that, he was engaged in a private battle for supremacy with Claudio Bravo, who denied him once, twice, three times. When Salah beat him in stoppage time, Kyle Walker got back to hook, remarkably, from the goal-line.
Van Dijk had earlier struck the crossbar, the ball bouncing down onto the line and away to safety. Just as at the Etihad in January, the game which proved so crucial in the title race, the luck was with City, though Sterling wasted one glorious chance at 1-0 to make the game secure.
Liverpool had fallen behind after just 12 minutes, caught out by a smartly-worked City free-kick to the far post, which ended with Sterling’s close-range shot creeping past an exposed Alisson Becker. Booed by the Liverpool fans before and during the game, the England man found the perfect riposte with his first goal against his former club, in his 11th attempt.
For the Reds it was a continuation of a summer theme, their high defensive line leaving them susceptible to diagonal balls in behind their full-backs. On this occasion, it was Salah left in an unfamiliar position while the rest of the defence switched off.
City, the best-drilled team in the league, punished them accordingly. Liverpool had the best defence in the Premier League last season, but they have looked a little more open during pre-season than Klopp would have liked.
Still, the Reds boss will be encouraged by what he saw from both Salah and Roberto Firmino here. Less than a week after returning to training, the pair looked sharp and lively, and were dangerous throughout. On another day, Salah might have headed home with a hat-trick. Or more.
Those two will be joined on Monday by the third member of that feared attacking triumvirate. Sadio Mane’s arrival back on Merseyside will be most welcome. His replacement here, Divock Origii, showed he remains a man for big moments as opposed to big performances. The Belgian’s role this season, surely, will be as a bench player.
His team, meanwhile, will have headed home with regrets. They should have won this game, and secured their second trophy in three months. Instead, they were left to reflect on missed chances, fine margins and the lottery of a penalty shootout.
They lost the battle in the end, but the evidence here is that the war between these two sides will continue for some time yet. Don't miss it!
Here, we saw the 2019-20 Premier League champions in action. Your guess is as good as mine as to which one it will be.