Quantity, not quality, for United
So Manchester is united. Its duelling halves, twinned on 89 points last season, go into Sunday's derby with matching setbacks in the Champions League, even if City's 1-0 defeat in Dortmund was an appropriate end to an ignominious campaign and United's 1-0 loss to Cluj will be remembered rather more by the Romanians than the Red Devils.
But Cluj's was a bittersweet triumph, Galatasaray's win over Braga condemning them to the Europa League while, despite missing out on points and prize money alike, the result was of academic value to United, who qualified four weeks earlier.
Twelve months after their group stage culminated in a defeat to Basel that cast them out of the competition, there were no such catastrophic consequences. "The real tournament starts at the end of February," Ferguson said. United will be in it. City won't.
"I am satisfied we gave some young players experience and others game time," the Scot added. "We have done what we set out to do." In terms of time on the pitch, perhaps, but the performance left a lot to be desired. Arguably the principal positive for the hosts was that seven players – Robin van Persie, Ashley Young, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra, Rafael da Silva, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans – were spared for Sunday.
It was an evening that, with the exception of the travelling Romanians, may only be savoured by those who weren't there, a category that included many of the fans. When the official attendance of 71,521 was announced, it brought laughter. There were empty seats to accompany the barren performance.
It is on nights such as these that the sheer volume of players in Ferguson's squad is apparent. But quantity does not always equate to quality and, while United fielded two bona fide greats, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, with another who may end up bracketed alongside them, Wayne Rooney, too many illustrated why they won't start at the Etihad Stadium.
Rooney, who will, briefly elevated United from mediocrity with a delightful chip that a backpedalling Mario Felgueiras clawed away. He was the corner taker, too, when Felgueiras made a fine save to keep out Danny Welbeck's glancing header. Otherwise, however, he was out of sorts and out of position as an ersatz right winger.
The attack was manned by others: Welbeck, Javier Hernandez, who started and showed why he seems better as a replacement, and finally Federico Macheda, once the super-sub but his glory days now seeming in the distant past. Welbeck had spoken 30 hours earlier of looking to learn from Van Persie. Copying the rested Dutchman's clinical touch would be a start; his best chance was spurned because he over-ran the ball and, while Felgueiras made a fine block from that header, the striker's record stands at one goal in 20 United games.
Elsewhere, too few pressed their case to feature in the season's defining game. Tom Cleverley limped off with a calf strain. When he departed, United were left with a central midfield with a combined age of 77. When that happens, it is normally because it is a trio. Not on this occasion. The 38-year-old Scholes was the junior partner, the 39-year-old Giggs the older figure. Fledglings have turned veterans. Giggs has gone from flying winger to strolling holding midfielder over two decades, Scholes from first choice to first reserve of late.
If at times the game was played at testimonial pace, that suited them. Yet they may soon be confined to tribute games, and neither refuted the theory that the Indian summer to his career is finally giving way to bleak midwinter. It was a rare outing together for the senior citizens; given the temperatures, they are starting to need the pensioners' winter fuel allowance.
Neither is equipped to afford the defence much protection, which they required when Scholes misplaced a pass and Luis Alberto advanced unchecked to send a swerving shot past David de Gea for a goal that was celebrated loudly in a corner of Old Trafford and, presumably, large amounts of Transylvania. "A wonder goal," said Ferguson. "You can't do anything about it.
What United usually do, however, is to respond. But though they conceded first for the 15th time this season, there was no comeback this time. Indeed, while Ferguson praised 'keeper Felgueiras for his second-half performance, one was rarely threatened. United were condemned to a defeat that, their manager said, will have no impact on the derby.
"It doesn't affect it," he said. "Sunday is a different kettle of fish altogether." When the seagulls follow the trawler, Eric Cantona once mused mysteriously, it is because they think the sardines will be thrown into the sea. Ferguson's fishy analogy may be simpler to deconstruct: different game, different team, different display and different outcome. He must hope so.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
Gabriel Muresan: Asked to nominate Cluj's best player, Ferguson grabbed a nearby teamsheet and promptly nominated "the No.6". It was a fine choice. Muresan was prominent throughout in a powerful performance.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT:
Limp. Much as Ferguson praised his young players, the only one to emerge with real credit was Phil Jones - "fantastic," according to his manager - who made his second start of the season and provided some impetus on the right flank. The fact that Giggs played virtually the whole game would suggest he will miss the derby. As it is, the seven unused first-teamers, plus late substitute Fletcher, De Gea and Rooney are likely to comprise nine of the starters. If so, that only leaves one place up for grabs.
CLUJ VERDICT: Excellent. After taking 10 points, they can consider themselves unfortunate to be in the Europa League. Besides Alberto, the left winger Camora impressed and Modou Sougou, who tormented Evra in their first meeting, showed his pace once again.