And to think Manchester City thought they could map out this truly, madly, deeply unpredictable season from day one. Before Mark Hughes sat down for the board meeting last August at which he agreed to a 70-point end-of-season target – apparently offering some well-timed levity about his Blackburn Rovers track record to lighten the mood – he had traced the forthcoming season game by game, point by point; plotting on a graph precisely what lay in the nine months ahead. A stickler for precision, Hughes evidently enjoyed the exercise. The graph became a constant reference point.
The notion that there is some kind of points quotient based on £250m cash invested is, of course, deeply flawed. A successful team is grown, not made, which is why Paul Scholes' role as pass master and matchwinner was so symbolic. Edwin van der Sar, who has seen more of Scholes than most, described on Saturday night how, 10 years after Edgar Davids said Saddleworth's finest was also one of the best players he had seen, the talents of this most uncosmopolitan individual are still discussed in dressing rooms across Europe.
"A lot of players say [what Davids said] in Holland, even Italy and elsewhere," Van der Sar said. "His image isn't that big and, of course, he's not into publicity and all that side of things, but I know that every year the big players recognise the quality. That's because of his passing ability, his technique, scoring ability. Even Xavi and Iniesta are talking about him."
The City manager, Roberto Mancini, probably wishes he could say the same for Patrick Vieira – two years Scholes' junior – but the Italian played until he was 36, too, and acknowledged a marvellous talent with equanimity. "I played in a different position to him, but if a player lives his life well and looks after himself as Scholes has done he can play at the top to this age."
It is no coincidence that Scholes' previous goal came at Wolves last month, towards the end of another error-strewn 1-0 win which the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, has declared critical to this most obstinate of title pushes. Scholes is no longer the goal machine he once was but we will soon be flooded with images of those days because Saturday's was his 149th goal, taking him to 10th on the all-time United goalscorers' chart, one goal behind Ruud van Nistelrooy. Saturday's angled header may top the charts for most vital when Scholes is packed up and gone, though. It kindles a record 19th title hope which Liverpool – irony of ironies – can boost further when Chelsea visit Anfield 13 days from now.
The consolation for City – if there really can be one after a third stoppage-time defeat to United in the course of one season – is that Scholes cannot go on much beyond his latest one-year contract extension and that Ferguson's dependence both on late goals and an old guard only adds to the sense of an ancien régime clinging desperately to power. City have their money. Their moment will come.
But while there is a heroism of sorts in the capricious manner of a defeat which has done Mancini's future employment chances no harm, a suspicion persists that they have not travelled as far in four months as he would have us believe. For a side so fond of wing play, they have curiously poor delivery into the box. For one managed by an Italian, they are obstinately prone to defensive lapses like Saturday's. When the moment arrived to write their names across the history of this fixture against a bruised Manchester United, they played for 45 minutes like the relative strangers they are and lacked attacking resolve.
All that talk of an imminent changing of the guard in this city seemed even to have affected players like Craig Bellamy, who believe they have little left to discover in football. "All the players played 200 per cent because they wanted to win this game," Mancini declared afterwards, which sounded like an unhealthy amount of want.
Desire is about playing longest, not just playing hardest, which the old adage about this sport – "football: 90 minutes of passing and then Manchester United win" – has had such a nasty habit of imposing itself on City. Gary Neville, whose performance on Saturday gives grounds for a new contract to match Scholes', put it best: "The manager asked us before the game: 'Do you want to win this title?' It may sound an obvious thing to ask, but the answer is, 'Yes, of course we do want to do that.' When you saw Paul Scholes running 70 yards to get in the box and on the end of that cross – that wasn't about experience – it was about pure desire. He is our midfield player. He had no right to be there."
Mancini, like Hughes before him, has identified this as the "winning mentality" – another of those commodities which cannot generally be captured on a piece of graph paper. You certainly know it when you have it. But until then it can be as elusive as the iridescent ticker tape which fluttered in the warm Manchester sunshine just before kick-off on Saturday.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Given; Onuoha, Touré, Kompany, Bridge; Johnson (Vieira, 65), De Jong (Ireland, 78), Barry, Bellamy; Adebayor (Wright-Phillips, 75), Tevez. Substitutes not used: Nielsen (gk), Zabaleta, Santa Cruz, Boyata.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Neville, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Valencia (Obertan, 80), Scholes, Fletcher, Gibson (Nani, 59), Giggs; Rooney (Berbatov, 74). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Carrick, Rafael, O'Shea.
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
Booked: Manchester City Kompany, Johnson; Manchester United Evra.
Man of the match: Scholes.