End of an empire at the theatre of dreams
Stamford Bridge horror show provides final proof Moyes must rebuild team from top to bottom
The last time Manchester United surrendered the Premier League title was with almost the last kick of the 2011-2012 campaign.
This time the crown fell from their grip on January 19. They creep now into football's off-Broadway production: the desperate race for fourth.
It is all receding for United and David Moyes: the title, a Champions League place and the evolutionary principle laid down by Alex Ferguson.
The FA Cup has gone too, at the third-round stage. Wednesday night brings a League Cup semi-final second leg with them trailing Sunderland 2-1.
Failure to overcome that deficit would deprive them of a daunting Wembley final against Manchester City, who lead West Ham United 6-0.
This is not turbulence. This is about starting all over again. The idea that United would pass like a well-kept Rolls Royce from Ferguson to Moyes is now not worth even debating.
The most successful club of the last 20 years are not undergoing adjustment difficulties.
The removal of Ferguson's managerial genius has exposed the team and the owners -- the Glazer family -- to merciless scrutiny.
There is no need to complicate what we see: too few players who can match the quality on show at City, Chelsea, Arsenal and, increasingly, Liverpool, who are six points clear of United in the fourth Champions League place.
City have scored 63 goals to United's 36. Moyes' men have the fewest points at this point in the calendar of any United team since the Premier League brought Year Zero to the English game.
Their 'noisy neighbours', on the other hand, have reached 100 goals in all competitions faster than any team since the league's inception.
There is more. When Chelsea needed to replace the veteran (Samuel Eto'o) who forced a hat-trick past United's disjointed defence, they sent on Fernando Torres, a £50m striker. When Jose Mourinho wanted to shut the game down he took the wrapping off Nemanja Matic, re-bought last week for £21m.
At City and Arsenal, too, the bench hums with talent.
In the absence of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie -- which would be grievous for any manager, any club -- there is simply not the depth of talent in United's squad to compensate for the upheaval of Ferguson standing down and Moyes needing time to fully appreciate United's attacking tradition.
Confining the analysis to this 3-1 defeat, you would say United's back-four is not functioning as a single entity and is vulnerable to both pace and set-piece play.
In front of a fragile centre-back pairing Phil Jones often appears tactically confused and is not exerting any appreciable grip in the defensive midfield area, which places more strain on Michael Carrick.
On the right Antonio Valencia is combative but lacks a gift for the unexpected.
Ashley Young, meanwhile, contributes in flashes but is not consistently threatening while Danny Welbeck is a level down from Rooney and Van Persie.
When an 18-year-old (Adnan Januzaj) is your lone conjurer the time has come to acknowledge a creativity deficit, especially when Shinji Kagawa, an unused substitute here, is not trusted against a Chelsea midfield which grew in number as the afternoon wore on.
Without their two top-class strikers, United are trying to close the gap on Arsenal and City with their most mediocre midfield in decades, and two full-backs who invite opposition attacks.
There was one final indignity to come, even after Nemanja Vidic had been sent off for a foul that deserved no more than a caution, and Rafael had escaped a red card despite flying in on Gary Cahill with both feet off the ground.
What could possibly turn this Sunday afternoon in London from bad to unbearable? Sympathy from Mourinho, is the answer.
In a faintly syrupy voice, Chelsea's manager pointed out how well United had played for the first 20 minutes and said he "hoped" Moyes's men would see off all comers in the race for the final Champions League spot.
No matter. United have long since passed the point where wagon-circling and siege mentalities can hide the truth about the squad at their disposal.
Moyes has had a searchlight trained on his suitability for the job from the moment a drop in intensity in the side became apparent in his first weeks in charge.
That light will intensify as stats are used like weapons against him. Example: in 48 away games as a manager Moyes has not beaten Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or United.
This kind of fact can assume an importance way out of proportion to its usefulness.
If his coaching zone sometimes lacks a clear voice and consistent direction -- Steve Round appears for a while, then Phil Neville jumps up while Moyes sits down and contemplates -- conclusions cannot be drawn until the new manager has had his chance to rebuild the squad.
Reconstruction is a collective duty, all the way up to the Glazers, who are now at the end of their extended break from fan disquiet.
Anger over United's corporate debt is bound to flow their way again. And supporters will not let them hide behind the interest they displayed in Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fabregas last summer.
The point is that it all came to nought, while City bought well, Liverpool improved, Chelsea reclaimed Mourinho and Arsene Wenger's jam tomorrow became jam today.
A combination of those factors has hit United with empire-shaking force.
The Moyes debate is subjective. The discussion about the players is not. We saw at Chelsea an undeniable manpower shortage in a squad that stood at the pinnacle only 10 months ago.
But they have the financial might, the tradition and the know-how to treat this as a golden chance to start again. The cost will be eye-watering.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)