MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United will recognize this feeling, the evanescent satisfaction of a battle won far too late in the day to have any hope of turning the tide of the war, the curious and complex pride that comes from celebrating a victory that highlights only how far you have fallen.
It is only three years, after all, since United experienced pretty much the same thing, in pretty much the same place, if not quite in the same circumstances. Manchester City was supposed to claim the Premier League title that afternoon — the first of Pep Guardiola’s reign — at home against its rival, neighbor and longtime persecutor in the spring of 2018.
The Etihad Stadium was packed and boisterous, relishing the prospect of the perfect scenario for clinching the championship, with United invited to play the part first of sacrificial victim, and then unwilling observer. What better way, after all, could there be to illustrate the power shift in Manchester, in England, and in Europe, than for City to win the league as United was forced to watch?
United, that day, proved recalcitrant guests. Guardiola’s team raced into a two-goal lead, and then hesitated, a brief flash of the old City, the one practiced in the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, bubbling up to infect the new. United took advantage, surged back and won.