Where Sunderland go from here, with or without Roy Keane still installed as their manager, is Old Trafford next Saturday evening. The prospect added an extra degree of chill on Wearside in the aftermath of the Black Cats' toothless capitulation to Bolton. It was their fifth defeat in six Premier League games and their fourth in a row in all competitions in what has become their Stadium of Plight.
The thought of what Rooney and Co might do against the kind of pussyfooting that passed for defending against Gary Megson's grateful side hardly bears contemplating.
Sunderland have not produced a winning performance in the Theatre of Dreams since the final day of the 1967-68 season, when Colin Suggett and George Mulhall scored the goals in a 2-1 victory that cost United the title – and helped to hand it to Manchester City. It would take something just as stunning this Saturday for Sunderland to put a halt to the alarming slide that has seen them drop into the relegation frame.
It might have been different had they pegged Bolton back to 2-2 on the half-hour, when Kenwyne Jones was penalised for a push in the attack that led to Djibril Cissé hooking the ball home.
As it was, it could have been a whole lot worse for Sunderland than merely their second-heaviest home defeat in Keane's 27-month tenure as manager (after a 4-0 beating by Manchester United last season). Johan Elmander, Bolton's £8m club record buy, scored twice but fluffed two more chances when clean through.
"Listen, if you get beaten 4-1 at home I clearly haven't done my job well enough," Keane said, taking the blow squarely on his bearded chin. "I can't blame the players; it's the manager. I was brought to the football club to take us to the next level. I've brought in lots of players – lots and lots of players – and we're coming up short."
Having spent some £70m on bringing in players, Keane has yet to find the most profitable way of deploying them. This season he has used 27 different players and his Benitez-like penchant for tinkering with his starting line-ups is doing little to find the stability that Sunderland so desperately require.
They had a platform on Saturday, Cissé finishing off a fine move to give them a 12th-minute lead, but it proceeded to crumble under the disorganisation of a reshuffled defence. The returning Pascal Chimbonda and Craig Gordon failed to stop Matt Taylor's equalising header, and then Danny Collins – shifted from left-back to the centre of defence – failed to clear both the free-kick that led to Gary Cahill's goal and the long ball that yielded the first of Elmander's goals. There was also a continuing lack of substance in central midfield, Dean Whitehead conceding possession in the passage of play that gave Elmander his second.
Not that Bolton could have cared. Four wins in five matches have transformed the complexion of their season. Sunderland are in need of a similarly drastic makeover.
Goals: Cissé (12) 1-0; M Taylor (18) 1-1; Cahill (21) 1-2; Elmander (39) 1-3; Elmander (55) 1-4.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Chimbonda, Nosworthy, Collins, Bardsley; Malbranque (Tainio, 63), Whitehead, Richardson (Leadbitter, h-t), Reid (Miller, 62); Cissé, Jones. Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), Diouf, Murphy, Ferdinand.
Bolton Wanderers (4-5-1): Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, A O'Brien, Samuel; Davies, Nolan, Muamba, McCann, M Taylor (Gardner, h-t); Elmander (Basham, 86). Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Shittu, Smolarek, Riga, Obadeyi.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Sunderland Richardson, Nosworthy.
Man of the match: Nolan.
Attendance: 35,457.Reuse content