Manchester United have gone four points clear at the top of the Premier League and, for Wolves, the final whistle must have had the effect of smelling salts. They had been dismantled, in every department, and were probably the most obliging opponents Sir Alex Ferguson's team could have wished to meet when the league is delicately poised and the champions are trying everything they can to unnerve Manchester City.
All the pressure is now back on City, who play their game in hand against a renascent Chelsea on Wednesday and will also be acutely aware that their advantage in terms of goal difference, once 14 better off, has been whittled down to three. The ordeal for Wolves was so extreme that, in hindsight, United could probably be forgiven for thinking they could have made it all up in one day.
As it was, it was almost a surprise they did not add more goals after Javier Hernández had scored the fifth shortly after the hour. They were rampant, playing with width and penetration and showing absolutely none of the pressure that generally takes hold at this point of the season. It leaves Wolves at the foot of the table, supplanting Wigan Athletic on goal difference and looking like near-certainties for relegation. On this evidence, it is difficult to see any way they can escape.
Their only mitigation was that they were faced with ruthless opponents and had to play the majority of the game a man down after a red card that represents one of the least distinguished moments of Ronald Zubar's career.
Even so, there was clear evidence of a side shorn of self-belief. They have won only one on their last 15 league games and picked up a mere point in the four games since Terry Connor replaced Mick McCarthy.
Once more, there was voluble anger directed from the crowd towards Jez Moxey, the chief executive. Yet the protests afterwards were nothing like as loud and angry as at their previous home game and, for the most part, the home support simply resorted to gallows humour. "It's just like watching Bilbao," they sang, with a pointed reference to United's elimination from the Europa League last week. They started Mexican waves and exaggeratedly celebrated corners, attempts at goal, even free-kicks. They also reminded United that they were yet to outscore West Brom, whose 5-1 thrashing of Wolves at The Hawthorns last month represents the nadir of a troubled season. It was an entertaining little sideshow but when supporters have reached this point it is usually only because they have accepted their fate and, for Wolves, that seems certain to be Championship football next season.
However easy United made it look, the truth was the champions were still a notch or two below their best levels. Wayne Rooney, for one, looked aghast at times about the frequency with which his passes were going astray. Quite simply, United were able to thrash their opponents while still holding something back. "It was OK, I didn't think it was anything special," an unimpressed Ferguson said afterwards.
But it was brutal, too, from the moment Jonny Evans, vastly improved and thriving in his extended run in the team, put United into a 21st-minute lead with his first goal for the club, hooking in a close-range shot after Michael Carrick had turned Rooney's corner across the six-yard area.
It was a soft goal from a routine set piece, it epitomised the impoverished state of the Wolves defending and, from that point, it got only worse for the home side. By the 39th minute, when Zubar collected his second yellow card, it was simply a question of how many goals United would score. The first, scything into Rooney, was so late and reckless it would not have been a complete surprise if the referee, Anthony Taylor, had decided it warranted a red card. Zubar then hacked down Danny Welbeck and this time he was not shown any leniency. His contribution had been negligent and it is not easy to understand why the home supporters applauded him off. As Connor put it: "You're allowed one mistake but, after that, you've got to use your brain."
What followed was a brutal lesson in the imbalance of talent between the clubs at the top and bottom of the league. Within four minutes Rooney had released Antonio Valencia on the right and the winger, brilliant on his return from a hamstring injury, sprinted clear, cut inside and kept on running before driving a high, diagonal shot past Wayne Hennessey.
Welbeck made it 3-0 in first-half stoppage time, firing Valencia's low centre past a static Hennessey and, after that, the second half was always going to be an exercise in damage limitation for Wolves. Hernández scored the fourth with a glancing header from Rafael da Silva's cross and, within five minutes, had turned in another Valencia pass. The worry for City is what happens if United hit top gear.