LONDON (Reuters) - After a brief ray of sunshine in a stormy season, the dark clouds were hovering over Old Trafford again on Wednesday in the wake of another humiliation for the champions.
A 3-0 home defeat by local rivals Manchester City, their third in a row against them at Old Trafford, drained away any optimism born out of victories against Olympiakos and West Ham United the previous week and illustrated once again just how far United have fallen in such a short space of time.
United manager David Moyes wore a glazed look as City's gloating fans mocked him with chants of "five more years" while thousands of the home faithful voted with their feet, heading for the exits long before Yaya Toure put a realistic gloss to the scoreline with City's 90th minute third.
"I am the one who picks the team," Moyes, portrayed on one Old Trafford banner as the "Chosen One", said after the latest in a series of debilitating setbacks.
"I take responsibility and always will do. It is disappointing. I thought it would be a tough year but I hoped it would be more competitive."
Club stewards had to step in when some fans tried to haul down the "Chosen One" banner as their frustration boiled over at another home humiliation days after Liverpool thumped them 3-0 there.
This season they have lost six times at their former fortress in the league and on home form alone they would be 12th in the table, rather than the seventh spot they currently inhabit with seven games left.
While league defeats against the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United, not to mention an FA Cup exit against Swansea, were hurtful, it is the way they have been outclassed by Liverpool and Manchester City in consecutive home league fixtures that have been most ego-damaging.
United's record against the current top four is equally dire with one win, two draws and five defeats the sum total of their efforts against Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal.
Moyes had a similarly poor record against the top-four when he was Everton manager but things were supposed to be different once he was given the controls at United.
The reality is, however, that he has inherited a squad in decline, with too many players who would struggle to get a place on the bench at the Etihad, Stamford Bridge or Anfield.
England squad player Tom Cleverley, who has become the whipping boy of the fans, was hauled off at halftime on Tuesday but to single him for United's malaise would be unfair.
Moyes' two big signings since taking the job, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, were outclassed by City's midfield slickers while Michael Carrick laboured in United's misfiring engine room.
While there is some sympathy for Moyes and continued support from Ferguson, who watched from the stands on Tuesday, and former players, patience is beginning to wear thin.
United look cumbersome in defence, short of guile and pace in midfield and totally reliant up front on Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, who missed Tuesday's match because of a knee injury that will keep him out of next week's daunting Champions League quarter-final against a rampant Bayern Munich side.
With no Champions League football, barring something extraordinary in the next month or so, next season Moyes faces a big challenge attracting the very best to Old Trafford in what will be a crucial summer of rebuilding.
The club's name still means a lot around the world but modern-day footballers are fickle and they will go to the clubs that offer them the biggest global stage.
Tottenham Hotspur know only to well the dangers of missing the out on the Champions League.
In 2012 they were denied their place in the competition despite finishing fourth after Chelsea won the final.
The following summer Tottenham saw Luka Modric leave for Real Madrid and lost out on the signings of Eden Hazard and Oscar - to Chelsea.
Moyes will face similar problems this summer even with home-based targets such as Southampton duo Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw and United will have to pay through the nose to beat off the likes of Man City and Chelsea with selling clubs also knowing how desperate they are to bring in new blood.
The radio phone-ins have already long-been inundated with United fans wanting the rug to be pulled from under Moyes's feet before he gets to spend a war chest on squad-building.
They argue that the Scot is simply not good enough for a club with the expectations of United but their former midfield maestro Paul Scholes believes Moyes must be allowed to construct his own team.
"He's only nine months into the job. You have to stand by him," Scholes said.
"Okay, he's made a couple of signings that haven't quite worked out yet, as he would have liked.
"In the summer, he's going to need backing - there's no doubt about that. Was he backed as well as he could have been last summer? I'm not too sure. But this summer, he has to be backed - and I think he knows he needs players."
(Editing by Mitch Phillips)