Manchester United a sad parody of champions
If David Moyes ever manages to banish the skull's head of a future that leered at him this week, he may be grateful for one small, but vital, mercy.
He may come to see defeat by Sunderland and the hapless performance of the team he inherited from Sir Alex Ferguson not as just another competitive disaster, but the gift of an absolute certainty.
It is that he need no longer waste too much time in front of the shaving mirror reflecting on his own possible failings since arriving at Old Trafford last summer. He can go right to the heart of the Manchester United crisis.
He can tell himself that he has done all he can to reanimate the team that Ferguson dragged across the title finishing line last season in the fashion of a gnarled old jockey applying the whip.
He can say that the team the old battler chivvied and exhorted, bullied and chided has run its last winning race.
He can say that the team which so grotesquely failed to meet its professional obligations, and blew the chance of a Wembley showpiece against their increasingly brilliant Manchester City neighbours, has been examined closely enough for signs of restored life and ambition.
And who could begin to argue with him if he displays the nerve to say, not just in the corridors of Old Trafford, but for the benefit of the club's aghast following, that there is one unavoidable conclusion.
It is that United have been a parody of champions these last few months.
Moyes can say that their response to a new situation, a new requirement to display both their commitment and their quality, has now hit rock bottom.
He can say that they have not only failed him and the club's supporters but, and most profoundly, themselves.
Only time will tell if Moyes, for all the superb professional qualities he displayed over a decade at a desperately under-resourced Everton, is cut out to do one of the biggest jobs in football.
But, in the meantime, any doubts about his credentials to step up on to the biggest stage he is ever likely to inhabit are dwarfed by the broader reality that announced itself this week.
This is that, with the Ferguson aura now nothing so much as a brooding reproach in the stands, United are in need of something much more than the quicksilver finishing of new signing Juan Mata.
Indeed, even the acquisition of the gifted Mata seems, in some ways, to be not much more than a superior sticking plaster costing a cool £37million.
The Spaniard has been rejected by Jose Mourinho as a luxury product, a fine finisher no doubt, but someone who cannot be trusted to adapt to the high production ethos of the Special One.
"I need more work off the ball, I want a bigger contribution," said Mourinho when he finally conceded that he was ready to sell the man who had flourished under Rafa Benitez last season as a playmaker and most reliable finisher.
And if Mourinho, now locked into a tight title battle with City's Manuel Pellegrini and Arsenal's Arsene Wenger, needs a raised work rate, a more significant impact on the course of a game, how do we begin to itemise the needs of Moyes?
Robin van Persie's body language in the Old Trafford stands this week was almost as discouraging as events on the field. It spoke of a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, one who, according to some rumours, has a set of priorities in which United do not figure.
Now that his patron Ferguson is no longer in command, word has it that he wants to be perfectly fit for the Brazil World Cup and one last challenge at the top of the club game.
Wayne Rooney? The England superstar remains at times a vibrant talent but who would want to pin their hopes of a new empire around such a problematic figure?
So, where does Moyes turn for the on-field impetus that served predecessor Ferguson so well?
Where is the resolute Bryan Robson, the young, battling Roy Keane, the charismatic Eric Cantona, the evergreen Paul Scholes and a Ryan Giggs doing more than running down the clock?
What Moyes looked at on Wednesday night was a wasteland of shrivelled ambition – and questionable spirit.
It was also the cruellest irony that when four of United's much-hyped new wave performed with such fatal ineptitude in the penalty shoot-out, one of the miscreants was Adnan Januzaj.
He is supposed to be the silver lining but, for the moment at least, he is a jewel in the poorest setting.
If United's performance against Sunderland was well short of the required quality, it also revealed a killing lack of leadership.
Who was ready – or able –to defy the worst possibilities of a terrible night?
United have a very basic need. It is the demand for players of competitive character, those who believe they have to play for their futures – and with everything to prove.
Mata is merely a gesture towards the need for action, but United, plainly, are not a team in need of mere refurbishment. They need to be knocked down and built again.
David Moyes has to re-make his prospects. But first he must re-make his team.
A great club has rarely been in need of such a massive renovation.