Has Alex Ferguson lost his edge?
If it was a last-gasp attempt by the wily and trophy-laden 70-year old Scot to outfox his Italian counterpart Roberto Mancini, it backfired spectacularly as United were second best throughout the contest and were lucky not to have lost by a bigger margin.
Still refusing to accept that his team are in the driving seat to win the title after overhauling an eight-point deficit to go top on goal difference with two games left, Mancini appears to have unnerved Ferguson with his pre-game rhetoric just as he emphatically won their tactical battle on the pitch.
For all their class and brilliance, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs looked every bit their age against a robust and relentless City midfield, marshalled by Yaya Toure who trampled United’s veterans with imposing ease.
Fielding the ineffective Park Ji-Sung as an additional ball-winner alongside Michael Carrick left Wayne Rooney a lonesome figure up front, with Nani reduced to chasing shadows after the supply routes were cut off.
Should United lose the title in the home straight, Ferguson might be left wondering whether he would have been better off starting with Danny Welbeck and either Antonio Valencia or Ashley Young, as that would have forced United to adopt their usual adventurous strategy even if it meant taking more risks.
United’s performance and formation bore a striking resemblance to the one that tamely lost to Barcelona 2-0 in the 2009 Champions League final, after which Cristiano Ronaldo openly criticised Ferguson’s big-game tactics in Europe and left for Real Madrid after six years at Old Trafford.
Although United retained their Premier League title that year and won another one last season, their 3-1 defeat by Barca in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley again exposed chinks in the armour which Ferguson has been unable to plaster.
Has Ferguson run out of ideas in the twilight of his illustrious 26-year reign at Old Trafford?
Or, has Ronaldo’s departure, coupled with United’s lack of financial muscle to land an adequate replacement for a player who has scored 143 goals in 141 games for Real in all competitions, left the English champions devoid of any meaningful alternatives against top-level opposition?
Ferguson is no stranger to adversity but the uncharacteristic sight of United fading in the Premier League run-in after a dreadful season in Europe could force the club’s owners to splash out the money for big signings.
Without injecting fresh blood capable of making an instant impact, United could easily fall behind their bitter city foes and play second fiddle to them in Manchester and England after dominating the scene for two decades.
All Ferguson can hope for now is that Newcastle United or Queens Park Rangers, who both have everything to play for against City, can do United a favour and force one last twist in the title race but not even that will paper over the obvious cracks in his squad.
PHOTO: Manchester United’s coach Alex Ferguson (L) gestures towards Manchester City’s coach Roberto Mancini (R) during their English Premier League soccer match at the Etihad stadium in Manchester, northern England April 30, 2012. REUTERS/Nigel Roddis