Just when Manchester United had kidded themselves they were closing the gap on their noisy neighbours, even if it was only by a fraction, they were brought back to cruel reality at Old Trafford in this Carabao Cup semi-final — and must now face the stark truth that nothing has changed under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at all.
The Norwegian may be a United legend but as he looked on helplessly and hopelessly as his team were outclassed in the first half it was hard not to question how much rope United can continue to give him.
Eleven months into the job, there had been talk recently that maybe he was starting to get a grip on the team’s identity and shape.
But City, who felt comfortable enough about this tie to leave Sergio Aguero and David Silva on the bench, were dominant in every phase and facet of the game as they successfully counter-attacked the counter-attackers and gave them a footballing lesson.
The second half was better for United and gives them a glimmer of a chance.
But it was still a painful night, especially as the result not only left their trophy dreams in tatters but also burst a bubble of hope had masked yet another season of under-achievement.
United may be 13 points adrift of their local rivals in the Premier League and losing the title count 3-0 to Pep Guardiola’s men since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013; but there was still a school of thought that Solskjaer’s side were slowly turning the tide and coming through a period of transition.
After all, City clearly haven’t hit the heights of last season’s title-winning campaign this year and appear to be lacking both in motivation and defensive stability in a campaign which has been dominated instead byLiverpool.
United’s season hasn’t been much better — in fact it’s been much worse — but nevertheless they took 14 league points during a productive December, including a memorable 2-1 derby win at the Etihad which was meant to be a vital stepping stone on the path to recovery.
Any idea, however, that Solskjaer had the tactical and coaching ability to outthink Guardiola in this first-leg tie was quickly swept away as City dominated to an almost embarrassing extent in the first half and took a 3-0 lead in front of a disheartened and dismayed home crowd.
From Bernardo Silva’s sumptuous opener, through Riyad Mahrez effortless rounding of David de Gea and on to Andreas Pereira’s own goal, it was a living nightmare for United’s fans who have been so desperate to give Solskjaer their backing.
But how long can that continue?
Supporters, whether those in the ground or those following the Red Devils from all over the world, need at the very least to see signs of improvement, of a long-term plan starting to bear fruition, of a coach who has a vision and knows how to achieve it.
Sadly, as much as we love the man who put the ball in the Germans’ net and as proudly as the banners bearing his face flutter in the winter air on the Stretford End, he isn’t ticking any of those boxes. Not a single one.
At the Etihad last month, United sat back and caught their rivals on the counter-attack to achieve a famous win though goals from Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial; but it was ludicrous to presume the same tactic would work again.
Instead they were simply overwhelmed and made to look naïve as City cruised through the game with Martial absent (on the bench because of illness) and Rashford equally invisible until he finally provided some hope by getting on the scoresheet late on.
His goal was well taken and continued City’s poor clean sheet record — only two achieved since the end of October — but it couldn’t mask United’s lack of quality despite their effort.
Let’s be honest, this isn’t the first time we’ve said that.
Too often Solskjaer has put out a team which didn’t perform – the first half at Sheffield United, that awful FA Cup tie at Wolves last week, the miserable defeat at Arsenal, shock reverses at Watford, Bournemouth and Newcastle.
There was even a home defeat to Crystal Palace and a 1-1 draw against Rochdale in this competition when only a penalty contest settled the tie. When you read that list aloud it is nothing short of shocking. This is Manchester United after all.
Now, with League Cup glory all but before the second leg of this semi-final at the Etihad on January 29, the greatest club in England is left scrambling around for a place in the top six and taking solace from at least scoring in a 3-1 home defeat.
It’s not enough. This club is not closing the gap, it is not making progress.
The truth is it is still going nowhere.