The Manchester clubs will resume their fascinating tussle for the Premier League title without the distraction of European competition but with uncomfortable questions hanging over their quality.
Shown up on the continental stage, first by Champions League group-stage exits and then by Europa League last-16 departures at the hands of teams not even challenging for their domestic titles, England’s finest have had their credibility knocked.
English leaders Manchester United could not match the skills and passion of La Liga’s seventh-placed side Athletic Bilbao in Thursday’s 5-3 aggregate defeat, while City’s spirited fightback did not make up for earlier errors as they went out to Sporting.
Their only chance of redemption is the league title in a season where one of them is destined to finish without a trophy.
“We have to win the league to save our season. If we don’t win the league, it will have been a really bad season,” United defender Patrice Evra told MUTV.
“I’m not worried about the league because we are playing well and now we are top, in front of Manchester City.”
United are a point ahead of their neighbours with 67 from 28 games and can go four points clear on Sunday with a victory at Wolverhampton Wanderers as City do not play until Wednesday when they host Chelsea.
If they keep pace over the coming weeks, next month’s Manchester derby at Eastlands could be a title decider.
Silverware might rescue their seasons but could be seen as superficial when the country’s class has diminished in terms of continental success as Champions League quarter-finalists Chelsea are the only English club still in European competition.
That comes three years after three of the four Champions League semi-finalists were Premier League sides.
City can be more encouraged than United by their European efforts, having been drawn in a difficult Champions League group on their debut and having given their all in a second-half against Sporting to be centimetres away from a memorable comeback.
Manager Roberto Mancini hoped his players could draw on that to inspire their bid for a first league title since 1968.
“If we have the same spirit that we had in the second half we can win the next game against Chelsea,” he told reporters after a header by goalkeeper Joe Hart in the last minute of stoppage time was tipped past the post to stop them progressing.
“And I am confident that we can win the title.”
Their three second-half goals on Thursday mirrored so many of the goal-happy performances that have lit up the Premier League this season and led them to spending much of the season on top of the table.
The same cannot be said of United, whose fall from grace on the international stage is much greater as it comes a year after they were on the way to the Champions League final and a record 19th English league title.
They won just one of their five European games at home and have looked defensively shaky and lacking in creativity.
“We haven’t played in Europe this season with the same desire that we have in the league,” Evra said. “We can see the difference in the league - we are top, and we are more focused on the league, we have to tell the truth.
“I don’t know why that is. If I knew the answer, it wouldn’t have happened. But it’s a bad year in Europe for Manchester United. That’s it.”
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