Manchester United’s performance against Cluj on Wednesday night probably plumbed the depths of their season so far.
It will certainly worry Sir Alex Ferguson, with the Premier League top-of-the-table clash with Manchester City coming up at the weekend.
Perhaps the only consolation for Sir Alex was the equally uninspiring display of their noisy neighbours against a weakened Borussia Dortmund side the previous night, in addition to the encouraging form of his young full-back Alexander Buttner.
Unfortunately, he was one of few who emerged from the match with any credit. Many of his team mates looked out of touch and uninspired, lacking the guile and imagination to break down a resolute Cluj defence.
In defence, United looked ponderous and at times insecure, gifting chance after chance to opponents who fortunately were insufficiently poised or talented to accept the many opportunities that came their way.
Phil Jones, perhaps not unexpectantly considering the time he has had out of action, is clearly still way short of his best, frequently ceding possession and misreading his colleagues’ movements.
Chris Smalling, despite returning to action a few weeks before Jones, looked vulnerable at times and failed to provide the experienced backbone to the central defence that was needed with a rookie, Scott Wootton, as his partner.
He also contrived to miss the target from a corner when it looked easier to score.
In midfield, Ryan Giggs was well short of his magnificent best, and once Tom Cleverley was replaced before halftime by Paul Scholes, who had a game he would probably choose to forget, United looked devoid of ideas going forward and created very little of note.
Danny Welbeck showed us a few of his deft tricks on the ball but generally flattered to deceive, and although Wayne Rooney worked his socks off as he can always be relied upon to do, his performance lacked any worthwhile end product.
The Reds cannot really have any complaints about the eventual result.
I fail to see the benefit of persevering with Federico Macheda. I can only assume that the 10-to-15 minutes he gets at the end of generally meaningless matches is merely a ploy by the manager to showcase him for more serious action in the January transfer window.
On recent performances, any fee they receive for the Italian will probably pay Wayne Rooney’s wages for a few weeks at the most.
In mitigation, the side that took the field on Wednesday was, of course, a young and weakened side playing in a group which they had already won.
However, the important rider to this is that it was a gilt-edged opportunity for those involved—playing against a second-rate European side—to stake a claim for a place at the top table with the “big boys” on Sunday.
On this performance, you would hesitate to nominate many for that honour.
If Tom Cleverley’s injury keeps him sidelined, you would expect that probably only two (Rooney and David De Gea) or possibly three (if Sir Alex decides to play Javier Hernandez up front with Robin van Persie) will be in the starting line up against City on Sunday.
My starting line up for that game would be De Gea, Rafael da Silva, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Rooney, Van Persie and Hernandez
Sir Alex will probably go for a more defensive lineup, possibly replacing Hernandez with Darren Fletcher and, apart from Anderson who is injured, replicating the team that played against Reading last week.
I feel, however, that United need to take the game to City to alleviate the pressure on their leaky defence, which has now conceded the first goal in 15 out of 21 Premier League and Champions League matches.
One thing is for sure: It will be a fascinating contest between two teams whose league positions belie the problems within their respective camps.
It seems to be a case of pitting City’s seemingly frayed and fragile current mentality against United’s defensive generosity.
This may be the season for giving, but United will know that if they want to continue as top dogs into the New Year, they cannot afford to give City any early Christmas presents on Sunday.