In the morning David Beckham "prayed" for Argentina in the World Cup draw. In the afternoon, when all the pressures bearing down on his great club came to a disabling head, he might just as well have been at a meeting of the Legion of Mary.
The requirement, of course, especially in the face of Chelsea's tigerish efficiency in a 3-0 Premiership victory at Old Trafford on Saturday, was not a sound-bite, however devout, but the steel of action at a vital moment in the history of a besieged football dynasty.
It never surfaced. Indeed, there was only one possible way to deepen the foreboding of Sven Goran Eriksson after hearing a draw which placed England with Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria, and was a sombre reminder of the reaction of Scotland's Ally McCoist when his team were grouped with Germany and Uruguay in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. "I've heard of the Group of Death," said McCoist, "but we've drawn the Group of Certain Death."
Had Eriksson been transported to Old Trafford and seen the performance of his captain on Saturday, he might have been gripped with a similar conviction. It was, frankly, a dismal statement of the player's capacity to inflict himself on difficult circumstances outside of the set-pieces at which his skills can be more easily applied.
At the high noon kick-off his embattled manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, not for the first time, began to assess the gap between Beckham's celebrity – which in the next few days could be marked by his election as both Europe's leading player and the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year – and his performance in key games for the club who pay his wages.
The verdict was crushing. Beckham, for the second time in a month, was yanked off the field as the champions fought despairingly to restate their credentials as reigning champions.
After an insipid showing at Anfield, Beckham quickly called for an ice-pack. At Old Trafford he shook his head in apparent mystification when the hook was applied soon after Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's brilliantly struck goal had condemned United to at least another week of suffering the effects of competitive meltdown. The possibility must be that he believes his own glibly offered headlines. Instead of praying for the chance of atonement against Argentina, he would have been better remembering the old message that God tends to help those who help themselves. Against Chelsea, whose sharpness and unity of purpose was a majestic credit to the powers of organisation of the often ridiculed coach, Claudio Ranieri, Beckham was a help to neither himself nor his team.
His cheerleaders – and has any individual footballer ever had quite so many? – may say that at this point in United's season singling out Beckham for special criticism is a bit like blaming a booking clerk for railway chaos. But if the endlessly publicised and fêted captain of England, the man who mythically took England's World Cup qualification by "the scruff of the neck", could not rally the most talented squad in English football, who could?
Ferguson had no doubt. Again it was Roy Keane, who is played when half-fit and is never withdrawn from critical action, carrying the manager's deepest hopes. This time, though, the job was beyond even his extraordinary resilience. He performed, in the circumstances, quite brilliantly while filling in at the centre of the defence, and then returned to midfield after Beckham, Juan Sebastian Veron and Paul Scholes all failed to exert any kind of prolonged influence.
Ferguson, as is his practice now, would pass comment only to the club's television channel. He said that United, with five Premiership defeats and an apparent crisis of confidence, were now unlikely to win the title. But his face was more eloquent, and so, again, was his decision to withdraw Beckham. What they expressed was the disbelief of English football's most successful manager at the sight of such rank under-achievement.
The reasons for the dishevellment have been documented exhaustively enough. If Fabien Barthez had not recently given a striking impersonation of a nervous breakdown, if Laurent Blanc had retained more strength in his legs, if Ryan Giggs had not suffered injury at such a critical time, if Ferguson had not flagged his intention of putting down the baton, perhaps the inherent superiority of United's squad might have suffered no more than a squall of doubt. But the reality in which Ferguson now lives is that he has never known a football crisis of such scale. The solution, he suggested after the irresolute performance at Anfield, no doubt lies in the spirit rather than the bodies of his players, and if the performance at Liverpool was disturbing, the one on Saturday came as a confirmation of all his fears.
Beckham's desperately ineffective performance thus became central to the problem of a club which for so long carried a huge aura into every game. The celebration of the player has simply gone beyond rationality. In one Sunday newspaper yesterday Beckham commanded three separate headlines. One screamed: "REVENGE: I prayed we'd get Argentina." Another said: "Becks out for revenge." And the third: "Koreans crown our Becks king of the world." Such was Beckham's profile the day after a performance which could provoke only one critical reaction: a shudder.
It is a world of illusion into which United now find themselves drawn with ever increasing trepidation. Ferguson, of course, has always hated the dichotomy between Beckham's showbiz connections and his need for the priorities of the football trenches. Now one can only guess at the scale of his unhappiness at Beckham's repeated failure to show for his club the passions he engenders whenever he pulls on an England shirt. Nor can Eriksson, so far the recipient of Beckham's most determined efforts, be utterly sanguine about the player's continued enthusiasm for his cause in the event of hard going in Japan. Recent evidence, certainly, does not put Beckham into the category of an implacable warrior.
Nor, it has to be said, do many of his Old Trafford colleagues qualify for such status on current showing. Chelsea, playing splendidly at every point of the match once Carlo Cudicini had snuffed out United's hopes of swift redemption with a fine save from Ruud van Nistelrooy in the third minute, would have been a handful for any team. Against this United they were virtually unplayable. Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen stretched the resolve of even Keane, and when Wes Brown failed to deal adequately with the run of Mario Melchiot into the path of Hasselbaink's corner after six minutes, United were shot through with doubt.
It did not help that Chelsea were masterful in defence, and here Eriksson might have felt a surge of comfort in the excellence of England's Under-21 stand-out John Terry. In partnership with the quick and decisive William Gallas, Terry was always in control of the threat offered by Van Nistelrooy and Andy Cole. He was hard and composed and he covered the ground with a conviction which must have brought a sigh of admiration from Ferguson.
There was a time when Ferguson could call upon such assurance with the nonchalance of Napoleon picking out a general at almost any time before Waterloo. But then we all know what happened to him. Right now, Fergie might welcome a trip to Elba.
Goals: Melchiot (6) 0-1; Hasselbaink (62) 0-2; Gudjohnsen (86) 0-3.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Barthez 5; Brown 4, Blanc 5, Keane 8, P Neville 5; Beckham 3 (Solskjaer 5, 75), Veron 4, Scholes 4, Fortune 3 (G Neville 5, 67); Cole 4 (Chadwick, 90), Van Nistelrooy 4. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Silvestre.
Chelsea (4-4-2) Cudicini 6; Melchiot 6, Gallas 6, Terry 8, Babayaro 6; Dalla Bona 5, Jokanovic 6, Lampard 5, Le Saux 5 (Stanic, 82); Hasselbaink 8 (Forssell, 82), Gudjohnsen 7 (Zola, 88). Substitutes not used: De Goey (gk), Zenden.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire) 5.
Bookings: Manchester United: Scholes, Van Nistelrooy. Chelsea: Babayaro, Jokanovic, Le Saux.
Man of the match: Terry.