This may have been Manchester United's dress rehearsal for true dejection. They scraped together a degree of conviction, but there was neither the ruthlessness nor the flair to trounce Swansea City. In consequence, Manchester City lead the Premier League table thanks to a resounding goal difference that is superior by eight.

Although the death of United's ambition to retain the title has not quite been announced, a period of mourning looks imminent. The league title has probably passed away from Old Trafford, following the victory for Manchester City at Newcastle.

The ground, though sunlit, was often sepulchral in this meeting with Swansea City, even if victory eventually raised spirits a little. Honours have been prised away from United often enough, but there may be a deeper melancholy for Sir Alex Ferguson in the recollection that his side had led the league table by eight points on Easter Sunday.

Following the match with Swansea, the bravado from Ferguson, when referring to his hope for the "biggest celebration of our lives [next weekend]" was not persuasive. City, in effect, would need to succumb to Queens Park Rangers at the Etihad next Sunday, while United are at Sunderland. Old Trafford minds must already be turning towards self-examination.

The 4-4 draw with Everton had, for instance, an eccentricity that spoke of a side no longer in full command of itself. Rather than wonder how the Easter advantage had slipped away, it might be more appropriate to ask how United had ever been in so dominant a position. Paul Scholes scored the opener here, but the need to coax a veteran out of retirement is also a commentary on straitened circumstances at Old Trafford.

The air of improvisation is inappropriate to a club of United's status. Should the side fall short in the league, the discontent will rise again about the ownership of the Glazers and the financial burdens they have imposed.

It is part of Ferguson's greatness that the team can still flourish, but this is an indifferent lineup if the severe comparison is made with sides and individuals of days gone by. Even so, it would still take a curmudgeon not to admire Scholes even in these very late moments of his career. His goal in the 28th minute came after a cross by Antonio Valencia from the right was directed by Michael Carrick towards the target, where the 37-year-old waited to convert the opportunity.

The fixture gradually took on a faintly therapeutic purpose for the hosts, especially since Swansea, prior to half-time, had displayed nothing of the spirit that has added to the appeal of the Premier League. United slowly sensed that they could impose their will to genuine effect and the crowd, for its part, began to feel that it would do no harm to take an interest in the fixture.

The audience stirred as it recognised that Swansea were a muted side with little thought of inconveniencing United. A rout no longer looked quite so improbable, and there was every cause to score repeatedly. In the 41st minute, a bending shot by Ashley Young from the left streaked into the far corner of the net, with the goalkeeper Michel Vorm powerless to reach it.

With iron will, United and their followers had developed a trace of interest in the fixture. Swansea, for their part, were a minor disappointment in the opening 45 minutes. No one anticipated the sort of result achieved on their own ground when Manchester City were beaten, but for far too long a time there was barely a declaration that they were taking part properly in this match.

At least, the United goalkeeper, David de Gea, did have to make a save, as he put a Gylfi Sigurdsson drive round the post in the 52nd minute. Swansea had located some pride, most likely at the urging of their manager, Brendan Rodgers. With an hour gone, the Spaniard had to scramble and save with his feet after a Joe Allen attempt had been redirected by Danny Graham.

The contest petered out, but Swansea took some credit for belatedly carrying the play to the hosts on occasion. United, for their part, cannot be satisfied with their work. In other periods, opponents would have quaked at 2-0 deficit and dreaded the devastation that awaited them in the second half at Old Trafford.

Everything, of course, is relative, and City themselves have faltered from time to time, but there is an excuse in the claim that their squad is still developing an identity, even if particular players have nothing at all to prove. United would have believed that their sense of unity would mean that an ensemble might get the better in the end of a scattering of stars at the Etihad.

That assessment may soon be declared obsolete. United have often been a club of surprises, but the necessary win next weekend is far from certain, since United travel to face Sunderland. Whatever happens, it has to be born in mind that the European competitions have exposed Ferguson's team.

The same holds true for City but it will be no surprise if the squad is bolstered substantially in the summer. By contrast, United fans cannot be sure that life will get better soon.¬