There was a feeling of hope in the air when Manchester United beat Burnley at Turf Moor on January 12 to go top of the Premier League.
United were still outsiders in the title race, but a fine run of form had put them in the conversation and they were combining moments of high quality with grit to get over the line and an unexpected 21st title looked a possibility, even if it was still a relatively remote one.
But what was a four-point lead over Manchester City is now a 14-point deficit ahead of the second derby of the season on Sunday and this title race has had a fork shoved in it by the first week of March.
There might be no shame in United not winning the Premier League this season, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his side should be furious at the way they’ve failed to make City work for top spot.
Since going top of the pile United have dropped points in seven of their 10 Premier League games. At Selhurst Park they chucked in the towel once and for all. A third successive goalless draw – two of them in the Premier League – highlighted United’s limitations and gave City plenty of breathing space.
After extending their winning run to 21 games in all competitions on Tuesday night, Pep Guardiola and his staff would have had their feet up in front of the TV on Wednesday. They’d have slept like babies afterwards.
Given City’s brilliance recently it was always unlikely United would win the league. They were in a title race if it required a points tally in the low 80s, but it now looks like being in the 90s once again. That’s beyond this team at the moment.
United’s surrender has made it routine though. What should have been a thrilling derby now lacks any relevance in the run-in. United’s ambitions rest with making second place a little more secure and earning bragging rights. Puncturing City’s winning run, which is edging closer to world record status, would be sweet, but the aftertaste of missed opportunity would be bitter.
It’s certainly a daunting trip to the Etihad given United have dropped points against Sheffield United, West Brom and Crystal Palace recently. Their performance at Selhurst Park resembled a team that had already come to terms with the fact their season in the league is over, barring a collapse that leaves them vulnerable in the top four.
They lacked energy and impetus all night. Creating chances has been a struggle recently and Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw were the players injecting some speed into United’s staid approach in the final third, which is a damning indictment in itself.
The way United have slipped from view in the title race should raise alarms again with Solskjaer. It’s not the first time they’ve found the kitchen a little too warm.
The questions around United’s mentality to get over the line have surrounded this team since they reached three semi-finals last season and lost them all and they’re still yet to be answered.
That run of semi-final failures reached four with the defeat to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup, while the collapse against RB Leipzig in the final game of the Champions League group stage was another damning night.
Now United have managed to make a title challenge last less than eight weeks. They can still bloody a few noses at the Etihad on Sunday, but it will be a small victory. The ultimate prize will be going to City.