In this era of 24/7 judgment one should be wary of laying United to rest. Nevertheless there is a pattern developing that makes viewing as grim as the club's balance sheet, and the answer is no longer in the feet of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Five defeats in the Premier League before Christmas, another here in a match United dominated for long periods, cannot be ignored.
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The ball is still cherished and Wayne Rooney as impressive as ever, but neither have anywhere to go in this line up. A touch by Rooney is the signal for three men to pop out of the ground like cartoon killers, jumping all over him and blocking the route to goal.
Football has missed the Manchester big show, when blue lumps like Mike Doyle would delight in the upward trajectory of City during the post 1968 European Cup decline of United. Reruns of City's victory over Law, Charlton and Best in the 1969 League Cup semi-final were a feature of the pre-match entertainment, played out on a muddy pudding known as Maine Road.
The greying heroes of City's great period were paraded before kick-off, Bell, Lee and Summerbee, all wearing scarfs in big-knot Mancini mode, piped along the touchline by Oasis.
Dennis Tueart's winner in the 1976 League Cup final against Newcastle is the yardstick by which progress is measured. A better barometer is the goal back heeled into the 'Scoreboard' net by Denis Law at Old Trafford two years before, the last time a City boot rested on United's throat.
That is what this fixture was about for City, the chance to reclaim lost authority in this town, to lord it over United in Manchester. Arab money makes this possible. United's leveraged ownership doubly so.
Something is going on in this city. An hour in a cab from Victoria to Eastlands is not normal, even in rush hour. Sky gave it the big drum roll even though it was not the host broadcaster. The cup was paraded along Coronation Street for Mancunian thespians to declare lifelong associations.
I always had dopey Steve McDonald down as a Red, and there he was coming over all Tueart and doling out the 'last time we won a trophy' speech. The only thing lacking was a Carling Cup edition of It's A Knockout and shots of the players leaving the team hotels on the bus.
The spike in Eastlands euphoria was only marginally clipped by the defeat at Everton. Roberto Mancini's arrival coincided with a string of friendly fixtures lifting City momentarily into the top four.
United continue to labour through a patchy season, pegged to the corrosive story of American debt. The United portfolio was being offered around the United States as the players took to the pitch. The search for a lifeboat continues and don't the City fans love it.
Foreign ownership does not offend the multicultural crowd at Eastlands, who offer their thanks to Sheikh Mansour in a banner strung high on the grandstand alongside Arabic script. United supporters were similarly sympathetic to the Stars and Stripes when the goals were going in and the championships were flowing.
In this period of modest returns and scratchy wins over Burnley, they plot the next protest. These were the divergent dynamics pressing against the City walls on Tuesday night.
The presence of City's old stagers and the sepia news reels made clear how deep the desire is at Eastlands to usurp United.
City have yet to acquire the swagger to compliment the Duracell running of Tévez and Craig Bellamy. But that is coming with more nights like these.
Maybe Mancini is a lucky manager. He went to his espresso Sir Alex Ferguson's equal courtesy of a penalty that looked questionable from a red perspective. Bellamy's collar was felt twice by Rafael da Silva but outside the box. That is not how the referee saw it and did Tévez do the honours from the spot.
The goal knocked the deference from City's system. They set about United in the second half as they should have the first, with belief and urgency. All the pointless United possession of the first period went the same way as ball domination did at Chelsea and Birmingham.
United's problem remains blunt attacking instruments. Tévez, on the other hand, would cut himself shaving without a blade so sharp is he.
United piled forward in the final quarter with Patrice Evra their most potent weapon. Ferguson has a week to solve that season-long problem. As willing as Evra is, a left-back cannot be expected to do the work of a winger.
Not at Manchester United, not in this fixture. The state of the tie reflects the power relation in this city; most definitely in the balance.