However emphatically they may dismiss Nigel Clough's side from the FA Cup in Wednesday's replay, the Old Trafford club have been forced to turn to the domestic cup competitions for solace yet again. It was sensible from that point of view to field a strong side in the drawn Carling Cup semi-final at Blackburn in midweek, even if it took something out of them ahead of yesterday's game. There was certainly something missing - and not just the occasional defender in a reshaped back four, as City counter-attacked vibrantly. Andy Cole and Darius Vassell have been short of goals as well as inches but they dovetail well together, which can no longer be said of any combination in United's back line.
Wes Brown must have been miffed to lose his place to Mikaël Silvestre, on the basis that the Frenchman would be able to help out his compatriot Patrice Evra, making a debut at left-back. Evra-ready? Not on this performance, which raised the question of how fair it was to thrust him into such a game so soon after joining from Monaco.
Trevor Sinclair, local boy and City supporter from boyhood, took joyous advantage, forcing Evra's withdrawal at the interval, by which time most of the damage had been done. Goals from Sinclair and Vassell in the space of seven minutes just after the half hour gave the home side a huge advantage, the danger being that they would sit back and concede a goal. It happened, but not until the visitors had been reduced to 10 men, with Cristiano Ronaldo sent off for diving in with his studs up on Cole; and in added time Robbie Fowler finished the final move of the game with a flourish, as the City hordes proved that Eastlands stadium can generate an atmosphere worthy of their fervour.
By the final whistle, however, there were significant gaps in the away section, representing further disenchantment with United. Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea never quite commanded the midfield against the even younger pair of Joey Barton and Stephen Jordan, and the visitors missed Paul Scholes, still suffering from blurred vision.
There was nothing wrong with Sir Alex Ferguson's eyesight - he was sharp enough to detect that Vassell was in an offside position during the build-up to the first goal. Barton had knocked the ball in and although Gary Neville won the header, Stephen Ireland was able to feed Sinclair, just onside, who scored City's first Premiership goal in more than five hours.
They had taken one point from the previous 12 and been slip-sliding away from contention for a European place. The feeling that the tide might turn was encouraged when Wayne Rooney, supplied by Ronaldo, failed to beat David James, who then set a second goal in motion. The goalkeeper's free-kick was nudged on by Sinclair and Cole's touch allowed Vassell to turn the stumbling Silvestre and beat Edwin van der Sar.
All that added to the frustration felt by Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson, who took it out on referee Steve Bennett at the interval. But the manager had little sympathy for Ronaldo, who was having one of his more infuriating days and would surely have been called off before he was sent off had the Korean Park Ji-Sung been available. He missed with two straightforward headers just before the interval and in the 65th minute, annoyed at not receiving a free-kick for Jordan's challenge, lunged dangerously at Cole, without making contact.
"It was rash," Ferguson admitted, all the more so for leaving his side looking up an even steeper hill. They climbed some way up it when Ruud van Nistelrooy turned cleverly on to Ryan Giggs' pass for his 18th goal of the season, but City fans had no great cause for alarm in the remaining quarter of an hour. Fowler appeared as a substitute and confirmed United's first defeat in 12 games with a firm finish from Vassell's pass.