Moyes' reign now past the point of rescue
Ferguson return ruled out as United look to halt alarming fall from grace
The nightmare of David Moyes, made so excruciating by the humiliation inflicted by Liverpool at the weekend, may now be in its last days.
That certainly is the growing sense within a beleaguered Old Trafford.
Alex Ferguson, the kingmaker who nominated Moyes as his successor, watched sphinx-like as Liverpool tore great holes in the credibility of last year's runaway Premier League champions.
Just a few days ago Ferguson issued the traditionally dreaded vote of confidence in Moyes but there wasn't even an echo of that after Sunday's 3-0 defeat. Moyes, many United insiders are beginning to say, has passed the point of resuscitation. Nor has there been much talk over the last few critical days of him being handed a massive summer budget.
"The biggest question now is whether Moyes will make it to the summer," said a source close to Old Trafford. Many believe that if United go out of the Champions League this week, and then get hammered by City next Tuesday in front of their own fans, the Moyes story will be at an end."
One option which is apparently being discounted is that Ferguson, who drove the current squad to an 11-point title triumph last season, will briefly return to the ring in which he proved himself such a durable football pugilist.
The word is that he considers his time has passed and there will be no repeat of Matt Busby's attempt to re-animate the team after handing over the job to immensely pressurised successors more than 43 years ago.
Now that old scenario has come back to life in a way which simply couldn't have been imagined when United were romping past the post last spring.
Indeed, it was hard to know who seemed to be afflicted by the deepest shock as Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool team ran so freely across Old Trafford.
Ferguson at times stared blankly into the middle-distance. The new chief executive Ed Woodward look like a man weighed down by the challenge in front of him, one that became a little more onerous with every ripple of discontent on the terraces.
Both could only reflect that when such as European Cup winners Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti were ruled out of the Ferguson succession any serious chance of damage control was thrown out the window.
Moyes proved in his decade at Everton that he is a man of admirable qualities, but so far at Old Trafford there has been little or no evidence that he was built for a stage as big as this one.
Two or three years ago Mourinho's eventual arrival at Old Trafford was considered a no-brainer, and increasingly so as his difficulties with the Real Madrid hierarchy – and Galactico team – became more apparent.
The source added: "You just couldn't get a bet on Mourinho because it was considered such a fait accompli. But then a growing number of people at Old Trafford felt that his behaviour had become so erratic he would bring too much baggage with him. The fear was that the club would be embarrassed by his antics."
Maybe so but there are many degrees of embarrassment and the current level being suffered by United goes right to the heart of their idea of who they are. United were not simply beaten by Liverpool. They were publicly undressed.
A claim that Rodgers, in only his second year of re-construction at Liverpool, would have no reason to call on a single United player had he the chance before the weekend showdown of the bitter rivals was not only vindicated but displayed in neon.
Not even £300,000-a-week Wayne Rooney was able to challenge the idea as even the best of his work failed to create a spark of aggressive conviction in any of his team-mates, and most catastrophically last year's chief striking arm Robin van Persie and creative midfielder Michael Carrick.
If Moyes looked time-expired as he spoke with some desperation to his assistant Steve Round in the United dugout, almost all of his players seemed to be in the process of booking their tickets out of Old Trafford.
Some judged Rafael da Silva as United's best player, which was one way of illuminating the problem. Da Silva was extremely lucky not to receive a red card before one went to Nemanja Vidic, once a defensive titan of the Premier League but now due to leave for Inter with the haste and the regrets of a refugee.
Wherever you looked United showed evidence that they were a broken force. In the light of this performance, and the one in Athens in the first leg of the European tie, it is hardly surprising that Moyes is no longer being spoken of as the manager who goes into the summer with a golden arm.
Against Liverpool, his two moves into the market, for his old Everton player Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, were put under harsh examination.
Moyes was said to be carrying at least £100m towards the summer transfer window but the uncomfortable fact on Sunday was while the combined cost of Fellaini and Mata was £64m – or appreciably more than half the amount that was expected to transform United – neither of them was able to offer even a hint that their considerable talents had been properly integrated into a drastically under-performing team.
This did not exactly underpin the plan to give Moyes a blank cheque book and another season to dispel the idea that his regime has been doomed almost from the start.
So what do United do if the trend stays damagingly ugly on the field. If the idea of Ferguson the old redeemer is indeed still-born, United may concede that the Moyes appointment is permanently locked in misadventure and put the team in the temporary care of an old pro caretaker, perhaps Ferguson's discarded No 2 Mike Phelan.
Then they would have to move for someone who has already covered some of the high ground that United so recently considered to be their own. Borussia Dortmund's free spirit Jurgen Klopp might just have the clout.