MANCHESTER City striker Stevan Jovetic ensured former club favourite Mario Balotelli’s return to England was relegated to a sideshow as the Barclays Premier League champions ruthlessly brushed aside the team who ran them so close last season.
Scorers: Manchester City - Jovetic (41, 55), Agüero (69); Liverpool - Zabaleta (83og)
While all the pre-match talk was of Liverpool’s new £16 million striker – watching from the directors’ box just hours after finalising his move from AC Milan – it was another forward who had previously made the move from Italy who took centre-stage.
Montenegro international Jovetic endured a miserable maiden campaign dogged by illness and injury but is now reaping the benefits of a full pre-season, as he netted City’s first two goals either side of half-time in a 3-1 victory.
In 153 minutes this season he has scored as many times in the league as he did in his first nine matches 12 months ago.
Sergio Aguero, his main rival for a starting spot up front, added a third less than 20 seconds after coming off the bench to wrap up victory before Pablo Zabaleta’s late own goal offered Liverpool some consolation.
City went top of the table thanks to a clinical cutting edge which Liverpool need to rediscover, presumably with Balotelli at the forefront, having lost the talents of Luis Suarez.
While not exactly cagey in the early stages, both sides seemed to be lacking the surety which so often defines these encounters between the top sides.
For all their endeavour and ambition, the best either could offer in the opening 40 minutes saw Edin Dzeko and Zabaleta shoot off target and Yaya Toure draw the first save out of Simon Mignolet, while for the visitors Daniel Sturridge had a near-post effort batted away by Joe Hart.
The City goalkeeper found himself facing more potential threats with Liverpool having plenty of opportunities to test the England international from corners and free-kicks around the penalty area but they failed to take advantage of those and their slightly greater share of possession.
Raheem Sterling’s penetrating runs looked like they could be a profitable avenue to exploit for Brendan Rodgers’ side but City’s vastly experienced defence proved too canny for the youngster.
With centre-half Dejan Lovren playing only his second game and left-back Alberto Moreno making his debut, there was maybe not the same understanding in Liverpool’s back line, and that inexperience saw them undone just before half-time.
Moreno, a £12 million summer signing, had arrived on the back of a Europa League triumph with Sevilla but for all his natural pace, the speed of the Premier League will take some adjusting for him.
He was fortunate his lunge at Zabaleta did not concede a penalty but the Spaniard’s next missed connection – from Lovren’s weak defensive header – allowed Jovetic to steal the ball from under his nose and blast past Mignolet.
After a catalogue of fitness problems, the £22 million transfer from Fiorentina last summer is starting to deliver, although once Aguero regains full fitness after his World Cup exertions he may find his time is limited unless he can continue to find the goals to persuade manager Manuel Pellegrini otherwise.
Jovetic proved his first goal was no fluke with a second in the 55th minute, converting Samir Nasri’s cut-back from David Silva’s nifty flick, and he should have had a hat-trick but bundled a shot wide from possibly his best position of the night.
Another former City striker Daniel Sturridge, who had what he thought was the equaliser ruled out for offside, forced Hart into a reaction save with an angled shot but there was little else from the visitors, who gave second-half debuts to winger Lazar Markovic and Emre Can.
But Aguero’s strike, racing onto fellow substitute Jesus Navas’ through-ball and exploiting the space Mignolet left at his near post, showed rather pointedly that City have well and truly moved on from Balotelli.
Liverpool’s final substitute of the night, Rickie Lambert, provided a small crumb of comfort by following in his own header which Hart had brilliantly saved, only for the final bounce to come off Zabaleta before it crossed the line.
Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy, Nasri, Toure, Fernando, Silva (Jesus Navas 65), Jovetic (Fernandinho 80), Dzeko (Aguero 69). Subs not used: Sagna, Milner, Kolarov, Caballero.
Liverpool: Mignolet, Johnson, Skrtel, Lovren, Moreno, Henderson, Gerrard, Allen (Can 75), Sterling (Lambert 79), Sturridge, Coutinho (Markovic 60). Subs not used: Brad Jones, Toure, Sakho, Manquillo.