There was a time when Manchester United saw the championship of England as not so much a prize as a right, but that, of course, was a very long time ago.
How long? It was when they could take hold of a game in midfield and shape it to their will while producing clear evidence of inherent mastery. To put it another way, when Ryan Giggs, 39, and Paul Scholes, 38, were still quite young.
These extraordinary veterans can from time to time still play at a formidable level. Giggs made the point with several promising initiatives when he and Scholes were given a late invitation to break the deadlock against Swansea and return United to a six-point lead.
However, neither Giggs nor Scholes began to suggest they could obscure an unfortunate truth. It is that every time they are called into the action it is a fresh indication that where once United were so formidable they are now required to make do.
If they perform the remarkable feat of landing Sir Alex Ferguson's 13th Premier League title it will be once again most about temperamental resilience – and the inescapable fact that the vintage years of the English club football are currently disappearing at an alarming pace.
How else can you interpret a weekend when the Premier League's two serious title contenders laboured with such futility for so long? The consequence is that Manchester City have narrowed the gap to four points and must be hugely heartened by United's failure to pile upon them new pressure.
For United, this was a lost opportunity to impose something which for some time has been reasonably described as superior will. As Ferguson no doubt explained to the Harvard Business School, however, in the end the most brilliant managerial techniques, the most subtle of psychological coaxing, don't mean too much if you can't get your hands on quite the right quality of player. He might also want to make the same point to his American owners before the close of the January transfer window, especially with a new set of reports that Wesley Sneijder might at last be available for the vital role of providing the insight, the vital changes of pace and direction at the command of an authentic, world-class playmaker.
As it is, United can only tremble at the creative fecundity available to their Champions League opponents when they arrive at the Bernabeu in February. The unsettling fact is that if United certainly produced the greater weight of pressure at the Liberty Stadium, if Wayne Rooney, especially, hadn't been in a nightmare of mislaid conviction, it was no surprise that the man-of-the-match award went to Swansea's old pro midfielder Kemy Agustien. The Dutchman has hardly had a spectacular career, but on his first Premier League start of the season he was notable for his touch, his eye for an attacking possibility, and a willingness to accept a high level of personal responsibility.
It was, frankly, an attribute which did not blaze out from the contributions of United's Michael Carrick or Tom Cleverley – nor from Rooney's grievous inability to take on a significant creative role behind Robin van Persie.
If Ferguson had any reason for comfort it was that Nemanja Vidic lasted the course, a fact which should almost certainly give the great defender more reason to display the authority and confidence that wasn't always so evident here. In fact, at times it was hard to know where United had less reason to be sanguine about their immediate prospects, in the defence which was swept aside so effortlessly by Swansea when the splendid Michu forged ahead of Van Persie with his 13th Premier League goal or the midfield which failed so profoundly to exploit the early advantage of Patrice Evra's set-piece goal.
In all the United navel-gazing, though, there was a danger of overlooking the excellence of the Swansea performance. The pioneering work of Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers has plainly been placed in the care of someone with more than the reputation of a superb player. The instincts of the great Michael Laudrup glowed in so much of his team's work.
Perhaps, if Ferguson had a sneaking regard for Swansea's performance, he was in no mood to include the hacked clearance by Ashley Williams which crashed against the prone Van Persie's head. The United manager's charge that it could have broken the Dutchman's neck was certainly debatable but perhaps mostly in the context of a deeply frustrated manager.
It is true, however, that Williams' post-game contrition was a lot less convincing than most of his play. He, too, was another Swansea player who operated at a formidable level of confidence. They are, plainly, a team who have plenty of reasons to look forward to the new year.
United may still have the ultimate one of once again proving themselves the best team in England. However, the instinct has to be that it will not be without some new help.Reuse content