Fighting talk can't hide fact United are on the ropes
When Manchester United played at the Stadium of Light last season a pipe burst in the away team's dressing room, soaking the visitors' pricey suits in raw sewage.
This time, the storm of ordure falling on their shoulders may have been metaphorical, but, judging by the looks on the players' faces, it will have felt far worse. And the smell will linger on much longer.
They were so close to ultimate victory they could feel the medals round their necks, taste the sponsors' champagne and begin to compose their triumphal tweets.
So close, indeed, that to learn it is not, after all, to be theirs, that victory had been snatched from their grasp even as they waited on the pitch for the green light to celebrate, must have felt like a bucket had been emptied on their heads. The Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill in his commiserations suggested that, to lose out in the way they had, was "the most harrowing loss you can have." Few in red disagreed.
United came to Sunderland knowing precisely what they had to do: get three points before even daring to dream about what City might give them. To achieve that, Alex Ferguson had picked a United team chock-full of experience.
Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney had all been in this sort of position before, all knew how to close the deal. And the way they played, the way Ferdinand held the defensive line, the way Giggs and Scholes controlled the midfield, the way Rooney ghosted into the area to score the only goal, they did all that was required of them.
When Rooney was by the corner flag in the second minute of injury time, pushing his back into a Sunderland defender with the ball at his feet, running down the clock, a chorus of voices yelled at him from the United section that City had royally fouled up and the title was his if only he could hold on.
He must have thought when Howard Webb sounded the final whistle that experience had once more carried him and his team through.
Instead, as he stood on the pitch watching the Sunderland fans do a mocking Poznan, he was subject to a storm of toxic rain on his parade. Instead of partying, he trooped off the field looking as if he had just encountered the ghost of Premier Leagues to come.
As the result from Manchester was confirmed on the stadium's giant screen, Ferguson was notably dignified -- despite the irony of losing the title in Fergie time. He merely shrugged, clapped his hands together and shepherded his players to go acknowledge the visiting supporters.
"It's cruel, but we've experienced many ups and down," he said. "We've won the title three times on the last day. Congratulations to our neighbours. But these young players will be around in five six, seven years. This experience will be good for them.
"But the history of our club stands us aside. We don't need to worry about that. At the start of the season, if I remember correctly, I said 82 points would probably win the league this season and we are seven points ahead of that," he said. "But look, it doesn't matter, we've lost the league.
"Yes, there will be times when we can sit back and say we did this wrong, we did that wrong, but 89 points would have won the league most seasons. All we had to do was concentrate on our job and that's what we did, but you are going to get certain types of reaction from the crowd.
"We knew five minutes extra-time was being played at City. Our game had three minutes and you don't know what can happen in the extra two minutes, but they got that break."
For Ferguson it will be a testing summer. For sure, 89 points would have won his team the title last year. But he will know the manner in which they lost it this season was not conducive to long-term competitiveness in the face of City's financial clout.
Blowing an eight-point lead is not something Manchester United teams are meant to do. He has a rebuilding job on his hands. Giggs, Scholes and Ferdinand may have been magnificent here, but they can hardly be expected much longer to carry the enterprise. Ferguson has youthful prospects coming through, but he has urgent need of players at their peak, in the 26 to 29-year-old age group, to pit at the core of a team to challenge City's burgeoning self-confidence. (© Daily Telegraph, London)