James Lawton: Manchester United's title race wobble shows why reinforcements are required
What was staggering was Manchester United’s failure to close down a match which was won
While it was happening it was a convulsion, and quite dazzling in so much of its detail. Afterwards, though, it seemed more as if that once shining golden eagle which used to fly over Old Trafford in times of need and refurbishment had come home to roost – and moult.
It was not so much that Manchester United lost two points in a high-class dogfight with Everton in which their awareness of the stakes was palpable right from the start.
These things happen at the taut end of the season. What was staggering was their failure to close down a match which was won – and a season that was all but sealed.
United are not supposed to show such frailty, not even when everyone knows that man for man, psyche for psyche, they are some way from what they used to be.
What happened, in the end, was that United folded.
It would, of course, still be a gratuitous insult to the ability of manager Sir Alex Ferguson to conjure his team's best combative instincts in less than promising circumstances to imagine that Everton's stupendous effort, a week after their timid disappearance from a Merseyside FA Cup semi-final, has suddenly put out of reach a 13th Premier League.
But just as the advantage has started to move back to Manchester City so has another harsh reality descended on the team whose trademarked ability to find a way to win seemed once again likely to offset the greater wealth and playing resources of their neighbours.
The trouble was that yesterday the astonishing knack simply didn't endure.
Instead, it collapsed all around them. Paul Scholes could no more control the pivotal stages of the match which might well have decided the title race as he could knock 10 years off his age.
Michael Carrick, who not so long ago, which is to say two or three years past, was threatening to become one of the most influential midfielders in the English game, was equally at a loss as to how to shut down an Everton who steadfastly refused to bend the knee.
Nor did it help that United's defence, battered by the superior probing of Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar, and the striking edge of Nikica Jelavic, revealed itself to be unfit for purpose.
Certainly Ferguson is unlikely to stint on the force of his spring message to his American owners.
It will say, surely, that behind the smoke and mirrors of a title challenge which, who knows, may yet succeed, United remain in the most serious need of major re-seeding.
On the evidence of all but the best of yesterday's performance – and while going forward some of it was extremely impressive indeed – still another United title, a fifth in six years, would surely represent a supreme triumph for Ferguson's ability to make the best of severely diminished means.
Nani, as he often does, produced moments of stunning virtuosity and there has not been anything much better this season than the brilliant mutual understanding displayed by Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney for United's fourth and, so it seemed, utterly decisive goal.
Welbeck has rarely looked more of a thoroughbred and as Rooney passed the United scoring marks of such formidable goals swordsmen as George Best and Dennis Viollet, he produced again the streak of consistent plundering that goes back, almost unbroken, to his Christmas-time collision with the disciplinary demands of his manager.
Ferguson yesterday largely buried his dismay by pointing out that if next Monday's collision with City at the Etihad Stadium may well prove to be about the winner taking all, it will not be an occasion exactly new in the experience of most of his players.
His demeanour has certainly been bleaker after less potentially significant reverses and it was almost as though an old part of him relished a return to the sharpest of competitive edges.
That United were certainly heading for such a contest was confirmed quickly enough by the sumptuous first-half goal at Wolverhampton by Sergio Aguero, a player whose bearing and talent suggested so strongly that City had moved on to another dimension when he first arrived in East Manchester last summer.
No doubt there is a little serious battling still to do and, no less certainly, Ferguson will say that what happened against Everton is one of those breakdowns teams of proven character are obliged to repair at the first opportunity. He said: "We've thrown the game away, no question about it. It's hard to imagine, how poor we defended."
He would say that, at least publicly. What he has to say in transatlantic discussions may, however, take on a somewhat different tone. One fact goes beyond the winning or the losing of another title. It is that United are in need of serious stiffening – and that it is a job which will require serious money.
The barest shopping list starts, surely, with four players – two defenders and two midfielders. Anything less and, you have to suspect, it's more smoke and mirrors.
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