Stupid reality, to borrow a phrase from the great philosopher Homer (Simpson), reared its head once more for Manchester City at Old Trafford, leaving them with only Premiership survival to play for in a season once pregnant with promise at home and abroad.
Real stupidity on the part of Gary Neville had put Manchester United in the position of having to face 51 minutes with 10 men and a lead of a solitary goal. Kevin Keegan told City at half-time that they would never have a better opportunity to end the 30 years of hurt since they last won at United, and it was not for want of scoring chances that they failed.
But fail they did, prompting the suggestion that Keegan might walk away, as he did from Newcastle and England. Did he have still have faith? "I definitely do." Will he fight on? "I definitely will." However, when he added, "You'll see me next week, hopefully," the final caveat was a tacit admission that the City board's patience is unlikely to be infinite.
In the League, City have gone 14 matches without a win and lie just three points above the drop zone. "Sometimes you get results when you don't deserve them," Keegan mused. "We look like a team that need a win, whether we deserve it or not."
Yet they have already had such a fillip, when they came from 3-0 down with 10 men to win at Tottenham and earn this tie. If ever a result should have launched a revival, that was it. City being City, they have followed it with a 0-0 draw and two away defeats.
One player, Steve McManaman, argued that the idea of City being in relegation trouble was some sort of media invention. Maybe they are in denial, for the fact that they opened up United as often as they did in the second half was perceived by Keegan as proof that there was nothing wrong with their creativity, only with the finishing. True, they ran into Tim Howard at his most agile, but City had handed United the initiative with a negative approach during the first half.
This, remember, was a United side who had leaked eight goals in their previous three games. But Keegan, the self-styled adventurer, packed his midfield with holding players, with even Shaun Wright-Phillips sitting deep, and left Robbie Fowler to plough a lone furrow.
Fowler is the finest finisher of his generation but lack of mobility makes him ill-equipped for such a role. Worryingly, he has also given the impression for some time of a lack of hunger or desire. City fans may wince at the thought of having anything to learn from the Red archfiend, but Roy Keane's remorseless competitive zeal was as crucial to United's success as Howard's saves or Ruud van Nistelrooy's goals.
Keane and Van Nistelrooy were involved in the stunning build-up to Paul Scholes' opener. Five minutes later, after Gary Neville fell theatrically under Michael Tarnat's challenge, his confrontation with McManaman sparked a mass altercation to stir memories of Nobby Stiles and Mike Doyle tangling amid the Blue-baiting, Red-hating fervour of Mancunian rivalry.
Asked whether he provoked Neville's butt in the face by calling his ex-England colleague a cheat, McManaman did not deny it. The former Real Madrid player should also have been cautioned for placing his forehead against Neville's, albeit without the aggressive thrust which the United player applied. But Sir Alex Ferguson's assertion that Neville would never have gone so far had Jeff Winter instantly booked him for diving overlooked the fact that City were in possession and breaking.
Neville will be suspended for three games just when United really need him. John O'Shea looked more commanding at centre-back than Wes Brown, yet the number of times Antoine Sibierski won headers in the second half ought to give both managers food for thought. Assuming Sibierski was not deputed to support Fowler from the start, why not? And how does Ferguson prevent the loss of Rio Ferdinand from ruining United's trophy prospects?
The tie could have been a turning point for Keegan. Now, to the dismay of the 9,000 City fans who helped generate a real derby atmosphere, it may do the same for United. "We felt [at half-time] that City would have to have a go at us," Ferguson said, "and that we could counter-attack with our pace." Both happened.
Van Nistelrooy (twice) and Cristiano Ronaldo were clinical in front of goal; the ripostes by Tarnat and Fowler were of mere consolation value. Which, in the context of City's long wait, was worthless.
Goals: Scholes (34) 1-0; Van Nistelrooy (71) 2-0; Ronaldo (74) 3-0; Tarnat (78) 3-1; Van Nistelrooy (80) 4-1; Fowler (86) 4-2.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Howard; G Neville, O'Shea, Silvestre, Fortune; P Neville (Brown, 90), Keane; Ronaldo, Scholes, Giggs (Butt, 88); Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Forlan, Fletcher.
Manchester City (3-5-1-1): Arason; Dunne, Van Buyten, Distin; Wright-Phillips, Reyna, Barton, McManaman, Tarnat; Sibierski; Fowler. Substitutes not used: Stuhr-Ellegaard (gk), Wiekens, Macken, Bosvelt, Elliott.
Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).
Bookings: Manchester United: G Neville. Sending off: G Neville. Manchester City: Barton, Tarnat.
Man of the match: Keane.
Attendance: 67,228.Reuse content