THE last time something of this significance happened, Sir Alex Ferguson repaired home to Wilmslow and buried his head under a pillow, having also contemplated placing it in an oven. But that was after the 5-1 Maine Road massacre of September 1989 and yesterday did not even come close.
"I'm shattered," the Manchester United manager conceded last night. "I can't believe it. It was an incredible disappointment, our worst ever day, the worst result in my history - ever. Even as a player I don't think I ever lost 6-1. That's a challenge for me, too."
It is 84 years since United have lost more heavily at Old Trafford - Newcastle's 7-1 win - and 85 since Manchester City managed to score six here, and in the aftermath the anger did not only belong to the manager. Missiles were hurled at the Glazer family's car by around 40 fans as it left the stadium, after the game which ended with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan's name being chanted from the City seats.
Police reinforcements were required to ensure a safe exit for United's owners. It certainly felt like a shifting of the tectonic plates in the city where United had been indomitable and undefeated at home for 18 months and 37 games.
The 47th-minute dismissal of Jonny Evans was certainly significant for a Manchester United side who refused to sit back even then and were punished for it. Bafflingly, Ferguson suggested he was powerless to prevent his side settling for a less humiliating scoreline. "We should have settled for 3-0," he said last night. But the dismissal told only part of the story.
City, five points clear at the top of the Premier League now, possessed a player in David Silva whom United's defence could not map as he established pockets of space to kill them with. While the decision to omit captain Nemanja Vidic was likely to have been one of Ferguson's darker preoccupations last night, after Evans and Rio Ferdinand looked so exposed, Roberto Mancini was rewarded for keeping faith. Mario Balotelli's selection, barely 36 hours after fleeing a fire at his Cheshire home, was rewarded by two goals, making it six in five games for the Italian. More significantly, Mancini - the so-called negativist - boldly dispensed with Nigel de Jong to go with one holding midfielder and two strikers. The City manager had taken encouragement from the capacity to concede goals that United had revealed against Chelsea and Norwich in recent weeks.
Mancini carefully avoid grand pronouncements last night. "United are too strong for [us to say we are now the better side]," he said. "They know, like me, there are only three points [from this game]. I still think United are one yard above us. I think we can only change this after we win the title in the end."
Yet after a day when City proved what Ferguson said about them in his programme notes - "you cannot buy success, though of course it helps when you can bring a host of top players into your club" - United must contemplate a talent deficit.
They do not possess a playmaker of Silva's quality, and both Anderson and Darren Fletcher were, frankly, engulfed. Fletcher's virus appears to have diminished him in more ways than one and it was left to Lee Sharpe on the club's in-house television station last night to quash the idea that the return of Tom Cleverley, who has four competitive starts under his belt, will make all the difference.
"It's hard to put United's season and success on a lad who has yet to come back from [a foot] injury. Let's give him a chance," Sharpe said.
A year after Wayne Rooney threatened to leave the club he said lacked the "continued ability ... to attract the top players in the world", it was actually he who looked most creative in central midfield, when billeted there after Evans' dismissal. No one was capable of providing either Nani or Ashley Young with the possession to attack. Danny Welbeck's display offered more evidence that claims he is England's saviour have been hasty.
Ferguson's suggestion that his side "absolutely dominated the game and played some brilliant football" was hard to reconcile with events, though he did not question the dismissal of Evans, whose appearance followed Vidic's poor comeback performance in Romania in midweek.
The Serb, who had been out since 14 August, historically takes several games to hit form after lay-offs. "[Balotelli] didn't control the ball but Jonny tugged his jersey. That gave the referee plenty of reason to send him off," Ferguson said. "It was a killer, a real bad blow because [City] are so strong defensively."
It was "the manner of the defeat" that hurt, Ferguson admitted. "And the goal difference. Over the years we have always enjoyed a better goal difference than our rivals but today we are ten goals short."
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