There will have been plenty of back slapping and nods of approval behind the glossy corporate façade at Manchester United about the way Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have gone about things this season, but this result was a reminder things are not always as good as they look at first glance.
The men in suits had backed their manager, stubbornly refusing to contemplate what everyone said would be a managerial upgrade if only they would see sense and replace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with the then out-of-work Maurcio Pochettino.
How clever they must have felt as United offered the most compelling evidence in the two years Solskjaer had been manager that he had a team that was not only improving, but that he was the man who had the temperament and the knowledge to lead them.
This semi-final defeat to Manchester City was the moment that growing sense of self-satisfaction evaporated. Manchester United were a semi-final side last season. They remain one now. They are the nearly men; nearly enough talent; nearly enough strength to win things, but lacking something.
United reached three semi-finals last season, in the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and Europa League and lost them all. They surprised people by securing a top four finish in the Premier League and a return to the Champions League. Solid achievements but not success.
This is not a club that should ever be satisfied with being one of the four best teams in any competition. Nearly is not, in reality, nearly good enough.
Solskjaer has taken them this far, he has dampened the fires of discontent, but United finished second in the league under Jose Mourinho and won two major cup competitions, one at home and won abroad.
Their former manager is currently preparing for the Carabao Cup final, but he will face the other club from Manchester. Not the one who sacked him and ushered one of its former sons to lead the team in his place. The Portuguese will have watched this at home and he will have smiled as much as United’s supporters grimaced.
Their respective records suggest that Mourinho wins trophies – Solskjaer loses semi-finals. This defeat does not derail United’s campaign or wipe out the progress they have made but it will hurt them and it does damage the manager.
It will sting. To lose one semi is irritating, even two can be dismissed as unlucky, but four of them back to back points to something more fundamentally wrong in the makeup of the team.
A slow start to the season had been banished to the vague memory banks. An early group stage exit in the Champions League has been largely forgotten as United charged up the table to within striking distance of leaders Liverpool. They are title contenders when nobody seriously thought they could be, putting unforeseen pressure on the faltering title holders, but there is not enough to suggest they will actually win the league. If you cannot win one off big games, how can you hope to beat the best in the league over the course of a nine month campaign?
Just as when they needed to beat RB Lepizig in the Champions League to reach the knockout stage, United lost and Solskjaer’s smile faded. They gave City a proper test, they had their chances but they lost.
The defeat will bring back all the old complaints. Solskjaer is a manager who is supposedly not good enough to win the big prizes, with a squad that is short of required skill and mental agility to triumph in adversity.
He had gone a long way to silencing all the noise that has followed them like an unwanted brass band. But that tune will be played again. The doubts will resurface and questions will once again be asked of the men in suits, who were so pleased with their vision and foresight.
Progress has been hinted at over the past few weeks and that good work cannot simply be wiped away, but there is still no proof this United side are good enough to do what matters – to win the big games when the pressure is on and when their is the possibility of silverware.
Just as the last 100m of a marathon is the hardest on the body, just as the final leap is always the hardest to make in any gruelling mission, Solskjaer has found the gap between champions and runners-up too big to bridge.
Silverware alludes him until he gets some in his grasp, United will continue to be a team of coulds, mights and perhaps. They are nearly there, but nobody remembers teams who lose in semi-finals and unless that changes, nobody will remember this team or manager fondly. Harsh, but true. Nearly men do not last long.