LONDON • After lording it over their "noisy neighbours" for decades, it remains a bitter pill to swallow for Manchester United to admit their cross-town rivals Manchester City are now "the best team in the country".
Following a chastening 2-0 Premier League home defeat by City on Wednesday, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes that to "close that gap and overtake them", they must first acknowledge their deficiencies.
While City are closing in on retaining their title with a one-point lead over Liverpool (88 points) and three games left, United are left with a battle with Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal for two Champions League spots.
It will be a tough ask given that it is now seven losses in nine games for the Norwegian handler, with his 28 per cent win ratio the worst of any full-time United boss. Jack Robson held the previous record at 29.5 per cent from 1914 to 1921.
Solskjaer, looking ahead to the pre-season rebuilding job, said it is now "his job to see who wants to sacrifice enough to be here".
He added: "We got a reaction and, in the end, we were beaten by a better team... You can see the work rate, it wasn't good enough though.
"They (City) have set the standard. For the last couple of seasons, they have been the best team in the league. That's the challenge for us to get to and we're clearly not there now. That's for everyone to see.
"There is a difference in quality. That is why they are top and we are where we are. Living in Manchester, we cannot be happy with that."
His candid assessment of their malaise cut little ice with pundits.
The abject display, with only one shot on target, even created a clash between former teammates.
Roy Keane was angered by Gary Neville's insistence that the Red Devils had "given their all" before putting the result down to the "gulf in class" between the two teams.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH
For the last couple of seasons, they (City) have been the best team in the league. That's the challenge for us to get to and we're clearly not there now.
OLE GUNNAR SOLSKJAER, Man United manager, on the huge task he has on hand.
Keane, though, felt there was a basic lack of application from the players, telling Sky Sports: "If that's a player giving it their all, then Manchester United are in even more trouble than I think, and they're in huge trouble."
The former club captain, who before the match singled out Paul Pogba as a "big problem" in a "squad full of bluffers", added: "We spoke about leaders and characters and I just don't think they have enough of them. These young players need examples around the club and that's the big question mark.
"The honeymoon period is definitely over. It's probably a bigger job than what he (Solskjaer) thought. The club has to back Ole now and let him this summer bring in the players he wants to turn these problems around."
Fellow pundit Graeme Souness agreed as he blamed their haphazard transfer policy as the root cause of "where the mistakes happen".
Yet United will continue to swim against the tide if they fail to land Champions League football next term.
Solskjaer acknowledged that Sunday's home league game against fourth-placed Chelsea, who are three points ahead, was do-or-die.
He said: "We know we must deliver a good performance. If we win it, we have two games to get those points and goals we need."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS