The banner at the Stretford End that mockingly records how long it is since Manchester City last won a trophy has only recently been updated to 28 years but might as well be amended now to 29. It was 1976 when City won the Football League Cup, and even further back in time when they walked away from Old Trafford celebrating a victory.
More relevantly, FA Cup wins in replays at Leicester and Tottenham have been their only success in the current team's last 22 games, one of them a 3-1 Premiership defeat on the same ground in December. The "bumpy road" Kevin Keegan spoke of then has become a pot-holed path to nowhere - except just possibly the Nationwide League.
Yesterday will have to go down as one of the might-have-beens, not unlike the League match. Once again Keegan's team were undone by poor defending against the poaching of Paul Scholes and Ruud van Nistelrooy, this time missing even more chances along the way and failing - like Tottenham in the fourth-round epic at White Hart Lane - to take advantage of playing against 10 men for half the game.
There could be no complaints from United about Gary Neville's red card for pushing his head into Steve McManaman's face shortly before half-time, which might have provoked worse scenes than the petulant jostling that followed. Once the teams had calmed down in the dressing-room, United were urged to use their pace on the counterattack in order to build on Scholes's 34th-minute goal, and Keegan told his men they would "never have a better opportunity to win here". Their best period followed for 20 minutes at the start of the second half, but Tim Howard's defiance provided the springboard for United to claim three of the five goals that then flew in during a breathless quarter of an hour.
Their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, felt able to acclaim "a fantastic performance" which may or may not have disguised any private misgivings about his side's continuing defensive fallibility. They have now conceded 10 goals in four games, a run of almost unparalleled generosity coming just before the Champions' League resumes.
Neville, returning in place of Wes Brown after the 3-2 defeat by Middlesbrough, was supposed to be the "shouter and organiser" that the former United centre-half Gary Pallister had identified as the back four's greatest need. Instead, he did his shouting at McManaman, who angrily accused him of diving in the penalty area four minutes before the interval. The England full-back and shop steward belied all his experience with a butt that left no option for the referee, Jeff Winter, who added a second Valentine's Day card - a yellow - for the simulation.
At that stage United were a goal to the good, Scholes having shown that City had learnt little from their previous defeat about preventing his forward runs from midfield. He darted in between Claudio Reyna and Sylvain Distin to meet Ryan Giggs's low cross and complete a fine five-man move. Although Louis Saha's absence - he was cup-tied with Fulham - was balanced by Nicolas Anelka's injury, City made abundant chances, three of them in as many minutes just after the sending-off, when Howard ("I don't know much about the FA Cup but I like it a lot") produced the first of his many good saves.
With Phil Neville forced to move into his big brother's position at the back, United lost some of the midfield control he had helped establish. The visitors' brightest spell thus continued for some time after the interval. Shaun Wright-Phillips, set up by Antoine Sibierski, delayed his shot long enough to permit the next save by Howard, who pulled off his best one on the hour as the Frenchman headed down for Joey Barton only a few yards out. Three minutes more and Robbie Fowler's flick to his mate McManaman required another good stop from a difficult volley.
While Fowler was now receiving good support from a packed midfield, Van Nistelrooy appeared to be getting isolated at the other end, but two goals in three minutes on the break effectively sealed the tie. In the 71st minute City hesitated - they are slow enough in defence without doing that - and Cristiano Ronaldo was allowed to cross from the right for Van Nistelrooy to squeeze the ball in at the far post after the merest touch from Giggs. Soon the Icelandic goalkeeper Arni Arason did well to keep out Giggs's acrobatic volley, only for Ronaldo to force the rebound past him from a tight angle.
Michael Tarnat's fearsome drive brought the inevitable City chants of "We're gonna win four-three", which immediately became a mathematical impossibility as Van Nistelrooy nudged in United's fourth from Keane's header across the six-yard box. But the visitors had the last word and might even have made a dramatic speech of it; Fowler caught Howard on the wrong side of the goal lining up a defensive wall with his quickly taken free-kick, after which he and Sibierski (twice) went close again.
In the end it was typical City, in every sense. And in the end their manager had to admit, as has usually been the case here in the past 30 years: "There was enough there but we've probably been beaten by the better side on the day. It wasn't meant to be, was it? Now there's only one thing to concentrate on and that's getting this club back up the table where I think it belongs."
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