The new champions faced the dethroned champions. Manchester City, now no longer the Premier League title-holders, gave a pre-game guard of honor to the new champions Liverpool, who clinched a week ago when Chelsea beat City, ending months of anxious waiting for the first title in three decades. And then City set about dismantling the Reds 4-0 on Thursday, their biggest league defeat in half a decade and just the second league loss of the season.
The 2020-21 title race, it felt, had already begun, as two of the greatest teams of all time will go at it again next season. It will surely be closer than it was this season, with Liverpool slated to win the title by some 20 points, irrespective of this humiliation. Last year, City eked it out by a single point.
How that race will shake out could quite possibly be decided this summer.
Because of the three-month layoff necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, a backlog of games will extend the end of the 2019-20 season well into the summer, going two months longer than originally planned. Then the culmination of the UEFA Champions League will take place in August, and the new Premier League season will kick off on Sept. 11.
Unlike City, Liverpool has already been eliminated from Europe, its title defense ending against Atletico Madrid. That might prove a small grace, because it will give the Reds an offseason of a month and a half, while City will be lucky to have a month to prepare for a new campaign and possibly much less if the Champions League final is reached.
But the wear and tear will be considerable. In order to wrap up the current season, City will have had to play 10 league matches in only 39 days. Liverpool’s workload was nine games in 36 days. In the summer heat, that’s a kind of exertion that will linger in the legs for a while, never mind the extensive squad rotation and fourth and fifth subs both clubs took full advantage of.
Both sides, then, will have to pace their way through two seasons that are, relatively speaking, almost contiguous. Rather than nearly three months without competitive soccer over the summer, they will have less than half that, meaning they will be going almost without stop from June 2020 through the start of the summer of 2021, when the rescheduled Euro 2020 will follow right on the heels of the club season, kicking off on June 11.
Even as one club celebrates its title, these teams are in for a long, attritional slog.
But now, in Liverpool’s first game since they became mathematical champions — they had been the emotional champions since Boxing Day — City delivered a stinging form of revenge for the reverse fixture. On Nov. 10, Liverpool undressed the then-defending champions 3-1 at Anfield. It was a decisive swing in the balance of power from Pep Guardiola’s swaggering side to Jurgen Klopp’s own collection of world-beaters.
Not this time.
City’s lightning-quick counter-attacks were far too much for the visitors to handle. Midway through the first half, tormented Liverpool defender Joe Gomez manhandled City forward Raheem Sterling over the course of several seconds in his own box. Kevin de Bruyne converted the penalty cleanly to score the first goal.
In the 35th minute, Sterling scored another. City scampered away. Phil Foden very nearly overhit his pass to the unmarked Sterling, but the little genius used the momentum of the ball to reach out and cut it inside his defender, opening up room to ping his shot in off the near post.
On the brink of halftime, Foden pinged the ball back and forth with Ilkay Gundogan and de Bruyne outside the box before finding himself face-to-face with Liverpool goalkeeper Allison, ripping the finish into the net.
And in the 66th minute, after yet another quick break, the clinical Sterling’s finish was ultimately slid into his own net by Liverpool’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for an own goal.
It was all a very rude way for City to welcome the new champions into their role as the team to beat. But even as nothing really remains for Guardiola’s proud side to play for — since even second place won’t yield a ticket to next year’s Champions League, courtesy of an impending two-season ban for Financial Fair Play transgressions, which has been appealed — the tone for the next chapter of this budding, transcendent rivalry has already been set.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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