City discover there's more to life than expensive Ferraris
What has happened to the poor little rich boys of Manchester City? Manuel Pellegrini, their £5m a year manager, cites the mental wear and tear that comes with competitive pressure – but then there is another more tempting theory with the latest prospect of crushing under-achievement.
Some would say it is the possibility of wealth fatigue. Others, after half a decade of the club's relatively modest rewards from massive spending, are a lot more emphatic.
They are asking an old, but never more biting question in a season which has seen Manchester United's Wayne Rooney land a contract that pays £300,000 a week and the City wage bill groaning under the weight of £639,000 a day.
One old player, part of the club when such as Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee swept City to four titles in three years with breathtaking football in the late '60s, put it bluntly enough this week in the wake of the potentially catastrophic home draw with doomed Sunderland.
"I find it impossible to understand," he declared, "how one of today's players can feel too shattered by a defeat when he knows that another few hundred thousand has just dropped into his bank account.
"I'm not saying our generation was morally superior or anything like that. It's just what can happen to someone of a working class background when he knows at such an early age that he need never worry again about money as long as he lives.
"What does that do to his ambition, his natural need to be a winner?
"However hard he fights it, that's got to be a problem – and it's one that must take a lot of skill and passion and team spirit to overcome."
For the moment the veteran's musings must sound like the sweetest of music in the ears of Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
For much of the season, the hard view was that Liverpool, for all their liberated football and the luminous form of Luis Suarez, would inevitably be worn down by the resources of such expensive squads as City and Chelsea.
Now such scepticism is being thrown on the bonfire ignited by Liverpool's surging sense of destiny – and team.
While City built a clear edge in last weekend's vital game at Anfield after going down 2-0 in the early going, it was Liverpool who saw a hugely challenging job through and then celebrated the triumph as though it was not just their hopes, but their very lives that had been on the line.
It meant that Pellegrini's reaction to the damaging deadlock with Sunderland, that now leaves City as title outsiders, was distinctly fatalistic.
He said: "I think we are more mentally tired than physically tired. Mentally, it was very difficult to play this game after Liverpool.
"Of course, our chances are less now than before the Sunderland match, but we will continue fighting until the end. We have to play five more games and we must try to win them and then see which team has the most points at the end of the season. Maybe in this moment, Liverpool and Chelsea have the better chances."
Maybe, indeed, and the concession of it must have brought one of the bleakest moments in Pellegrini's distinguished career.
After title-winning work in his native Chile, in Ecuador and Argentina – and impressive team building in Spain with Villarreal and Malaga – he came to smooth away the dysfunctions of Roberto Mancini's City regime with only one substantially disappointing football experience. It was his ultimate failure to mould the Galacticos of Real into a solidly coherent team. He went mightily close in his battle with Barcelona, losing by one point, but he complained that the art of team-building was always going to be hazardous in the Bernabeu star system.
Now, surely, he must be feeling familiar frustration at the Etihad Stadium.
When he was appointed on a three-year-contract last summer he announced: "One of the reasons I'm here is for the way I try to get my teams to play. Manchester City fans will see a different way of playing than they have seen in other years. We will try to be an attractive team."
A different way of playing, certainly – at one point this season City were lighting the sky with their extravagant game – but, unfortunately, an only too familiar way of losing.
Mancini's lack of rapport with his players, his cautious outlook, was finally punished after the deflation of Cup final defeat by Wigan Athletic. Now, another Cup loss by the same opponents and frustration against the hapless Sunderland, seem to have brought the club back to square one.
Pellegrini may claim the disabling effects of persistent injury to Sergio Aguero, the cruelly timed indisposition of Yaya Toure and the rare folly of Vincent Kompany's mistake in the decisive moment of the Anfield game, but then his is a squad, which is supposed to be double-banked with Premier League-winning quality. At least the ticker tape parade of wage slips has always suggested it was so.
The aching truth for the City supporters is that, so far, the Middle Eastern billions have only entrenched the belief that you can never truly pay your way to consistent success. You have to have something that runs deeper, a collective passion, a sense that there is more to life than a drive full of expensive Ferraris and Aston Martins.
That may be an injustice to the spirit of Aguero, who has long promised to be the soul of his plutocrat team, or the consistent brilliance of the small, but beautifully formed David Silva and the dogged application of James Milner, but the sense of City's vulnerability, despite all the privileges, remains as pervasive as ever.
Indeed, you have to ask what they have to lose, except maybe the chains of their inordinate wealth?