Opinion: Manchester United's era of mediocrity is here to stay
Only 33 minutes had elapsed in this lop-sided first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final tussle between the two eternal rivals, and the red side of Manchester were fearing an embarrassment of gigantic proportions on home soil.
In the end, the result flattered United's well-meaning but still callow manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was soundly out-thought by his celebrated adversary, Pep Guardiola, as things ended 3-1 in favour of the Cityzens.
However, more than the defeat or the result, what should worry United is the manner of the thumping and the overarching implications of this reverse. The Red Devils, for so long the best in the business in England, are now a well-and-truly mediocre side that does belong to the top half of the table and might even compete for a top-four and definitely a top-six spot in a season when their rivals for the same are playing as inconsistently.
But. the gulf in class between them and the top two in England and the elite in the rest of Europe is huge and is probably here to stay.
For one, United seem to be far behind their city rivals (and Liverpool) when it comes to innovation and freshness. City began without a centre-forward in an audacious move by Guardiola but still manage to tear open the United rearguard with impunity. Solskjaer, whose hit-on-the-counter scheme against big teams have reaped rich rewards this season including an inspirational win at the Etihad, had no response to this approach.
His players could not dash forward because they were outnumbered in midfield and attack and could not sit back against the marauding runs of Mahrez, Silva and Raheem Sterling.
Gulf in personnel
Andreas Pereira is well-meaning and spirited but is not good enough to be a starter for a club of United's stature. Victor Lindelof works his heart out in the centre of defence but is a frail shadow of legends such as Japp Stam and Nemanja Vidic who commanded the formidable United defences of yore.
Mason Greenwood and Daniel James are huge talents who are far from their full potential and would never have started games day in and day out under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Poor management in both the board room and the field since 2013 has led to United losing their clout on the field and the transfer market. As a result, the 11 that they put out on matchdays can just not match up to the top professionals such as Sergio Aguero and Mohamed Salah who have taken their rivals to new heights.
World-class talents that United have had at their disposal during this period, Paul Pogba and Angel Di Maria, have often failed to be at their best during a troubled era.
Perhaps it is time to accept for the club that this rebuilding phase will take a long time. Solskjaer has a long way to go in terms of acquiring tactical nous and the board behind him needs to change their approach dramatically as well. Perhaps, it is time to accept that United aren't the best anymore, not poor, not amazing, just about mediocre...at least by their lofty standards.