MANCHESTER, England – The Alex Ferguson era isn't over at Manchester United. Still, this did feel like the beginning of the end.
A 6-1 loss. Make that a 6-1 humiliation. To Manchester City, no less.
At Old Trafford.
A hammering this heavy and this rare called for the history books. Not since, wait for it, January 1926 had City inflicted such pain on its crosstown rival in the league at its home ground where so many teams go away empty-handed.
"I'm shattered, I can't believe it," said Ferguson, who wasn't even born the last time the Blues pulled this off. "There's a lot of embarrassment in that dressing room and quite rightly so."
So what does this mean, what's the bigger picture?
Well, despite the astounding scoreline, it doesn't mean English soccer's center of gravity has permanently shifted a few miles east to the blue side of Manchester. At least not yet. United still has the bigger global brand, the bigger global following and an Aladdin's cave full of trophies. City is not even close to taking all of that away.
Still, City looks increasingly likely to make the last few years of Ferguson's reign at United — he turns 70 in December, in his 25th year in charge — very uncomfortable indeed.
City says its aim is to become one of the best teams in Europe. As far as statements of intent go, beating the Premier League champion at home so comprehensively was the soccer equivalent of planting a flag on Everest.
The hundreds of millions of dollars that an Abu Dhabi billionaire has thrown at City in the three years since he bought the No. 2 club in Manchester have turned a weakling into a muscle-bound force that can now call itself United's equal on the pitch. Financial doping clearly works.
Sheik Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan generally doesn't attend City's matches but his deep pockets are working wonders. The Glazer family, which owns United, was at Sunday's game but has loaded the club with debt. Is that one of the big differences now separating these sides? Certainly, there was a feeling that not only was United outplayed and outclassed on Sunday, it has been outspent, too.
Yaya Toure, purchased from European champion Barcelona, and David Silva, bought from Valencia, were superb in City's midfield, making United's Darren Fletcher and the Brazilian Anderson look as thinly spread as butter on toast. One of United's greatest strengths in the Ferguson years has been identifying, nurturing and unleashing young talents like defender Chris Smalling and winger Ashley Young, who both played Sunday.
But United needs a Toure- or Silva-like figure in the middle of the pitch. With each City goal, not signing World Cup finalist Wesley Sneijder from Inter Milan and letting City lure Samir Nasri from Arsenal looked like larger and larger mistakes.
That City would win never looked in doubt after United's Jonny Evans was sent off for yanking on Mario Balotelli's arm early in the second half.
You should not trust Balotelli with your car or your house, because he's liable to wreck them. Someone — seemingly either him or a friend — set off a firework in his house, causing a fire, in the early hours of Saturday, which certainly is a novel way to prepare for such a match.
But, with a ball at his feet, in front of goal, Balotelli is becoming very dependable. He made the day for headline writers — "Mario Fireworks!" ''Burning Balotelli!" — by scoring twice. After the first goal, Balotelli lifted up his jersey to reveal a T-shirt underneath emblazoned with the question "Why always me?"
"He's crazy," City manager Roberto Mancini said. But as long as he scores like this, Balotelli's quirkiness will be secondary.
Mancini, as is customary, brought what he said was a "very good" bottle of wine from his native Italy to share with Ferguson after the game. For the Scotsman, it must have tasted as sour as vinegar.
"It was our worst ever day," Ferguson said. "It's the worst result in my history, ever. Even as a player I don't think I ever lost 6-1."
He added: "You have to recover. The history of Manchester United is 'another day' and we will recover. That kind of defeat will make an impact on the players."
One wouldn't expect anything less of Ferguson's players. But the reality is City now has a five-point league lead over United. Even though the season is still young, United could be chasing blue shirts from now until next May.
Those like European soccer boss Michel Platini who argue the massive deficit spending by clubs like City is a mortal danger to the sport's status quo and overall good health could point to this result, nod wisely, and feel vindicated. City fans could retort that United was long overdue to be knocked off its pedestal. Singing their hearts out in United's ground, they didn't care that this win was bought as much as it was earned.
But being able to purchase some of the world's best players as easily as a kid in a sweet shop is only part of why City is becoming so strong. A lot of the credit goes to Mancini, who is making his big name and big ego stars play and work together as a team. He could have come to Old Trafford looking for a draw, played it safe. Instead, he fielded an attacking lineup with both Balotelli and Sergio Aguero up front. Mancini said studying video of United had shown him that Ferguson's team this season often concedes opportunities to score.
Those are not words that have been used often together in recent years.
That could be about to change.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester