MANCHESTER, England -- Applauded onto the pitch and then hunted down and chased off it -- some guard of honour that turned out to be for Liverpool at Manchester City as Pep Guardiola's players delivered a dual statement of intent with an emphatic 4-0 victory over the newly crowned champions on Thursday.
Such has been Liverpool's dominance of the 2019-20 season that this result will do nothing to diminish the magnitude of their achievement. They are still 20 points clear of closest challengers City and remain on course to break the 100-point barrier and all sorts of other milestones, including most wins and biggest winning margin, having already sealed the title more quickly than any other club in Premier League history.
But make no mistake, this defeat will have stung Liverpool. To lose your first game after being crowned champions is bad enough, but to be on the end of a hammering is something else.
It finished 4-0, following goals from Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain own-goal, but it could so easily have been six, seven or eight for City, such was their absolute control of this game. City had a stoppage-time Riyad Mahrez goal harshly ruled out by VAR for handball and Liverpool needed Virgil van Dijk to clear a Foden shot off the goal line, so the scoreline did not flatter the home team.
Despite the result, Jurgen Klopp insisted that he had no issues with the focus or attitude of his players.
"If you want to lead this story in direction we were not focused, then do it," Klopp said. "I liked my team's attitude, you ask again. Isn't it nice another team can be champions when Man City can play so well? Man City are incredible. I saw their season, they didn't play a bad game."
Klopp had selected his strongest team, perhaps to ensure that Liverpool paid due respect to City for their gesture of clapping them onto the pitch in recognition of their title success. So not only did Liverpool find themselves well beaten, they did so with their best team on the pitch, and City will use this win to fuel belief that they can reclaim the title next season. Liverpool will also head back to Anfield knowing that the challenge to remain at the top has already begun.
"Next season started today and we did well," Sterling said. "We had a test against the current champions to make a point and we did brilliant."
But next season can wait. Liverpool have done what they need to do and they have earned the right to have an off day, but City still have plenty to play for this season, and this performance and result has now given them the platform to build their assault on the Champions League.
Guardiola and his players still have the FA Cup to think about -- the holders face Arsenal in the semifinals at Wembley (July 18 at 2:40 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) -- but the only show in town for City since football restarted last month has been their attempt to win the Champions League this season. They must still complete the second leg of their round-of-16 tie against Real Madrid when the competition resumes in early August, but having won 2-1 in the Santiago Bernabeu in the first leg, they will be strong favourites to progress to the quarterfinals, especially after this victory against Liverpool.
Without the injured Sergio Aguero and the outgoing Leroy Sane, who is set to complete a transfer to Bayern Munich, City destroyed the new Premier League champions, but also the holders of the European Cup. Liverpool will not hold on to that trophy, having been eliminated by Atletico Madrid in the last 16, but their pedigree is without question, so Real will hold no fears for City next month.
But can City go all the way, win the Champions League in Lisbon and end the club's lengthy wait for glory in the competition? The desire is already bordering on desperation, but if their two-year ban from the Champions League is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport this month, City's motivation to win it will only increase.
Back in November, Guardiola let his mask slip when it came to winning the Champions League, with the City manager attending an awards ceremony in Manchester with Klopp where, standing alongside the Premier League and Champions League trophies, he jokingly said, "Maybe we can swap?"
"I would like to win my [Champions League] trophy back, and I am pretty sure he would like to win that one [Premier League]."
Guardiola now has his best chance to win the trophy with City, having already won two with Barcelona. The final-eight tournament in Lisbon is single elimination, so if City overcome Real, they will be three wins from glory. And in one-off cup competitions, City have been formidable under Guardiola, winning three successive Carabao Cups and last year's FA Cup.
And he has the players to go all the way in the Champions League.
De Bruyne is in arguably the best form of his City career, with Sterling also hitting the heights. Foden is rapidly becoming a player whom Guardiola cannot leave out and Mahrez has added a more direct edge to his game. Aguero, sidelined with a knee injury, is also likely to be fit again for Lisbon, although Guardiola said after this game it will be "impossible" for him to face Real.
But City have weaknesses to resolve before they travel to Portugal. Defensively, only Aymeric Laporte can be relied upon, and while Benjamin Mendy did well against Liverpool, the French full-back always seems one moment away from a calamitous mistake. The likes of Bayern Munich, Juventus or Paris Saint-Germain will back themselves to take advantage of City's shortcomings, but no team still in the competition will be comfortable about facing their attacking players. And this result will only add to the sense of fear that City can strike into their opponents, regardless of their calibre.
For Guardiola and City, the remaining league and cup games are all about arriving at the Champions League in peak condition, and their dismantling of Liverpool suggests that they are coming to a boil perfectly.