Come what May, Sir Alex Ferguson should still be hoisting the Premier League trophy for an extraordinary 13th time in his career, but his 2013 Manchester United vintage has illustrated in recent weeks it is not the "strongest" squad their manager boasted about.
Defeat to Manchester City on Monday night should ultimately be inconsequential. United are 12 points clear of their Mancunian adversaries with seven games remaining, and should they collapse again then they deserve to replace Devon Loch as the lexicon du jour for failure to complete routine victory. Coincidentally, Ferguson's father bet on the horse in the 1956 Grand National when it inexplicably jumped onto its stomach on the final stretch.
Last year's collapse, when eight points clear with six games remaining, has aided United in their semi-humiliation of City this campaign, but the ignominy has been diluted recently. For the majority of this calendar year, United's form has been pragmatic. Joe Hart described them as a "killing machine" and Roberto Mancini said teams were "soft" against them. Both are valid points. United had faced little resistance from opponents in the league the past two months until City inflicted their first league defeat upon them since mid-November on Monday.
United were out of sorts against City
The machine has kept churning despite the creaks, but United are still smarting from the hangover of their unfortunate ejection from the Champions League, while Ferguson's old weakness have been exposed by genuinely strong opponents. Michael Carrick has enjoyed a magnificent season but remains the sole figure holding the fort in the team's midfield, overran by Chelsea and City in the last month. Ferguson has spent roughly £199.85m since he last bought a central midfielder in 2007, and United's most chastening defeats in the time that has elapsed have largely been due to the midfield malaise.
Against City, Ferguson's reactive-not-proactive achilles was again evident. While he was busy whipping up the crowd after Nani's red card against Real Madrid, José Mourinho introduced Luka Modrić to effectively win the tie. Ferguson altered United's line-up not after Modrić had struck but after Cristiano Ronaldo had put Madrid ahead. He did likewise on Monday evening following Sergio Agüero's brilliant winner when Ryan Giggs, experiencing a performance similar to one of his autumn aberrations, was an obvious withdrawal.
Yet since City are still well adrift, Ferguson was not panicking after a fourth league defeat of the term.
"I was pleased with the performance in the second half," he told Sky Sports. "I thought we did really well coming back from 1-0 down."
His diversion tactics failed when he described Robin van Persie, a shadow of the dominant force for the first five months of the season, as "fantastic". Wayne Rooney, playing his first game in nearly a fortnight, was blunt rather than sharp yet was also enthusiastically praised. Worryingly for Ferguson, United's last three goals in the league have all come via huge deflections.
No one believed the ruse. Effectively Ferguson advertised a chink in his and United's armour. Everyone may say the league is a fait accompli, but they said that last season as well. The chasm is four points more, but United are in a rut and City have momentum which they can build on this weekend in their FA Cup semi-final.
United travel to Stoke on Sunday as one of the few teams who have not succumbed to the bullying of the Britannia bruise brothers. The struggling artisans offer the chance for the machine to return to churning.