MANCHESTER, England -- It was Groundhog Day at Manchester United again. Another Manchester derby, another Old Trafford humiliation against Manchester City. This time, even the City players could see the funny side, with Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez caught on camera laughing as they walked off the pitch at half-time Tuesday with their team 3-0 ahead.
They could have been laughing at anything. A private joke, perhaps, or a wisecrack from the stands. Or, more likely, they were laughing at how bad United had been in front of their own supporters during the opening period of this Carabao Cup semifinal first leg. It looked as though Silva and Mahrez could not believe how easy it had been.
It was 3-0, but it could have been six. It probably should have been, so dominant had City been in the first half.
"We could have gone in four or five up at half-time," Silva said. "We had the chances."
That the game ended 3-1 (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.), following a Marcus Rashford goal in the second half, was down to City taking the foot off the pedal rather than United finding some form to save themselves. But even though United are still -- mathematically, at least -- in with a chance of reaching the Carabao Cup final by turning this tie around in the second leg at the Etihad on Jan. 29, it will take a miraculous performance to deny Pep Guardiola's side.
"It's a steep mountain to climb," United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said with some understatement after the game. "But we can still climb it."
This was a night when United were not only humiliated by their neighbours, it was a night when the mismanagement of the club in recent years was exposed for all to see.
It was men against boys -- City's class and experience against United's mediocrity and raw youngsters -- but it has been pretty much the same ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, with City winning on five of their eight visits to Old Trafford in that time. City did not even have a striker playing in this game, with Guardiola opening with both Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus on the bench, but they still tore United apart.
After six years of bad decisions, poor recruitment and managerial mistakes, this is where United are now. Injuries contributed to Solskjaer's team being weaker than he would have wished, with Harry Maguire and Paul Pogba unavailable, but that was about it. The United manager was not missing half a team of senior players.
Last summer's failure to recruit more quality players, in addition to Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James, left Solskjaer fielding a team that consisted of a goalkeeper who is living off his past reputation in David de Gea, defenders in Phil Jones and Victor Lindelof who are simply not good enough, a midfield of Fred and Andreas Pereira that is the club's worst in living memory and a selection of exciting prospects -- kids, basically -- up front in Rashford, James and Mason Greenwood. City's team was stacked with world-class quality -- seasoned players at the peak of their careers -- and they even had Aguero, Jesus and David Silva sitting on the bench.
United's youngsters, including full-back Brandon Williams and the injured Scott McTominay, have carried the team in recent weeks while the more experienced players have continually failed to deliver. It says everything about the malaise and shortsightedness at United that Jones, Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard are still at the club, despite it being clear for years that they are either too old or too inconsistent to be in Solskjaer's squad.
Solskjaer himself is also an issue. The Norwegian revived the club for a while last season after replacing the sacked Jose Mourinho, but results this campaign have been worse than any of his predecessors', and he was given a tactical lesson by Guardiola as City ran riot. As Solskjaer stood on the touchline with his hands in his pockets, sporadically directing his players, he looked like a man trying to hail a taxi in the rain rather than a coach with a plan.
United desperately need reinforcements this month, but the party line from within the club is that they will sign players in January only if they are capable of making the team better. It shouldn't be difficult to find a few of those, although if making United better is the criteria, it might take a while counting them as they all form a line outside Old Trafford. Solskjaer delivered mixed messages on recruitment after Tuesday's game, initially saying that a short-term solution is "something we're looking at," before going on to say that, "if it isn't the right thing, we won't do anything."
This United team is crying out for old heads, however, and players capable of taking the pressure off the youngsters and making it easier for them to perform. Pereira, for instance, could become a much more influential player with a senior midfielder alongside him, guiding him along. But right now, Pereira and too many other United youngsters are being left to fight for themselves, and that approach will end only one way against a team as strong as City.
The optimists will point to United's 2-1 Premier League win at City last month as evidence of green shoots of recovery at Old Trafford, but it can be easy to mistake green shoots for a flash in the pan.
This tie might well be lost, but the bigger picture for United is about being able to play in big games and win them regularly again. They are still not there, more than six years after Ferguson vacated the stage, and the excuses are wearing thin.
Sooner or later, United have to deliver, with or without Solskjaer at the wheel.