There was a decidedly ‘end of empire’ feel to Chelsea’s comprehensive demise at Old Trafford on Sunday – an image reinforced an hour after the final whistle when chief executive Peter Kenyon could be seen, flanked by bodyguards, sheepishly making his way out of the stadium.
The season may still have plenty of mileage in it, but the ambitious administrator's plan to achieve world domination is looking flimsy in the extreme – with not even the benefactor caring to put aside other items of oil business on the back-burner in order to witness more evidence that the dream is souring.
The Blues have caught the mood of economic downturn and seem powerless to resist and there is the nagging feeling that we may have already seen the best of this outfit, as Alex Ferguson cheekily predicted pre-season.
All this is a high price to pay for one missed penalty, but the rapid decline would surely not have been as pronounced as this – or have even taken root – had John Terry not suffered in Moscow.
United fans taunted the Chelsea captain mercilessly throughout and it was a reminder that getting so close to a summit without actually attaining it is no guarantee that you will ever be back there again.
Chelsea were fragile in formation and ultimately fragile in spirit. They once again looked exposed at set-pieces and bereft of the collective power to respond that characterised their progress under Jose Mourinho.
There was no creative spark and no width from the full-backs that typified the early part of the season. Didier Drogba was crowded out of it, always looked hurried and had a nightmare.
How appropriate that the former Portuguese boss who did so much to bring out the best in the Ivorian should be in the stands. In England on a reconnaissance mission ahead of Inter’s Euro tie with Manchester, Mourinho will have been shocked at how easily his former charges capitulated once United had breached the Blues defence at a corner just before the break.
By the end, the 3-0 scoreline – courtesy of goals from Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov – hardly looked too flattering.
Luiz Felipe Scolari was honest enough to admit his team’s performance suggested they were a long way off being serious title contenders.
In any case, pundits have been over-hyping the competitiveness and unpredictability of the Premier League this season, when in reality the champions look well equipped to stretch away – even if they seldom rise much above a level of grinding competence these days.
“We have 16-17 games and you never know what happens. If we play as today, and as in the last three or four games, then sure, we won’t win,” the Chelsea boss admitted when asked what the result meant to the team’s title hopes.
“Now it’s the time for me, and for the players, to think about our future. Either we have lost everything, or we are men and we improve. It’s only this way or the second way is death and I am not a man for this. And I think my players are not men for this.
“If we play as we did in the second half, we will not arrive where we want to be. But we fight until the last game.”