United must strengthen to keep pace with City
Manchester United stood 100 seconds from a 20th title when Sergio Aguero ripped the Premier League prize from their grasp and transported it to Manchester City.
And when the dust settles on a finale to the season that was pure sporting theatre, Sir Alex Ferguson will move to ensure time does not stand still for United in the face of City's new domestic supremacy.
For all the scenes of bedlam at the Etihad and talk of a shift in the balance of power, assessment of United's season and the road ahead should first be placed in context.
They were less than two minutes from prevailing and retaining their crown over a Manchester City squad assembled at such vast expense by their Abu Dhabi-based owners.
And with a tally of 89 points, they achieved the highest total recorded by the runners-up in the Premier League's two decades.
The old streetfighter's defiance was in evidence as Ferguson told City: "They know I'm not going away."
And there was even a history lesson for good measure as he added: "It will take them a century to get our level of history."
This may or may not be true - but City's recent activity makes it clear they will do their best to make up for that lost time.
United players looked distraught after finding out City had beaten QPR. Photo: PA
When Barcelona outclassed Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League Final at Wembley, Ferguson's thoughts were on tackling an enemy abroad.
He is no closer to accomplishing that task, only to find another threat landing on his doorstep in the shape of the club he branded the "noisy neighbours". This enemy is almost outside the gates of Old Trafford.
Ferguson is insistent his squad is not in need of a serious overhaul but a summer without major acquisitions in midfield and attack will again raise the contentious question of just how much financial power is being placed at the Scot's disposal by American owners the Glazers.
He said before Sunday's final game at Sunderland: "I don't think the squad needs freshening up. I think I've got to make sure we have got a really strong squad.
"We've got a good base. Obviously every young player will hopefully get that maturity and authority into their game. We saw that with Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
"I think with Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley we will see that with them. They have very good potential.
"There is Rafael and Fabio da Silva and David de Gea. There's a good nucleus of young people in the club."
United had to cope without inspirational captain and defender Nemanja Vidic for the last six months of the season and still stood less than two minutes away from another title.
Ferguson also lost the understated but trusted Darren Fletcher from his midfield when the Scot was ruled out from December onwards because of illness.
But the brutal analysis, one that Ferguson is so well-equipped to make, is that he must shape his plans in the knowledge that rather than suffer what he predicted would be "untold damage" if City lost the title, their arch-rivals will now be armed with the confidence of champions.
And this is why, for all his optimistic messages, Ferguson will need to apply some serious work to his squad this summer.
True, there is a nucleus of good young talent although it remains largely unproven at the highest level.
BBC Sport's Alan Hansen told me: "Sir Alex has these young players like David de Gea, Smalling, Welbeck, Jones and Cleverley and this season has been a learning experience that will improve them greatly. No question they will be even better for it next season.
"The question is will De Gea become an Edwin van der Sar? Will Smalling and Jones become a Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic? Will Danny Welbeck become a Rooney? The answer at this stage is only 'maybe'.
"I would say, without a shadow of a doubt, that a top class midfielder will be Ferguson's priority, a dominant figure who can get from box to box, play that killer pass and score a goal. But where is he and will other clubs not want him? It is easier said than done."
But the performances of City' pivotal players such as Yaya Toure and Aguero underscore the scale of the task he faces.
For all the fine work of 37-year-old Paul Scholes in midfield since he came out of retirement in January, United still miss a player of Toure's power, presence and influence.
And for all the enduring qualities of Ryan Giggs, the Old Trafford legend is 39 in November and Father Time will be tapping even this enduring figure more firmly on the shoulder next season.
Hansen added: "Giggs and Scholes have been wonderful players but their age means they won't be playing every game and for how long will be capable of producing this outstanding level of performance? This is why I think strengthening midfield is the priority."
United have also been forced to rely heavily on Wayne Rooney's goal contribution this season as Welbeck continues his excellent development and Javier Hernandez suffered an understandable second season dip.
With Dimitar Berbatov now almost certain to leave Old Trafford and Michael Owen's future yet to be clarified, Ferguson may well feel unearthing a goalscorer to compliment Rooney another item on his agenda.
For all the strength in central defence, on the flanks question marks remain about Rafael da Silva's defensive qualities and Patrice Evra will be another under scrutiny after a mixed season, with Ferguson already linked with Everton's outstanding England left-back Leighton Baines.
Ferguson was in attendance as Borussia Dortmund won the German cup with a 5-2 win against Bayern Munich on Saturday, with attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa and striker Robert Lewandowski two objects of his attention.
United will not usher in a wholesale arrival of new faces but there is little doubt there is a danger City could open up that most slight of title victory margins - goal difference - unless Ferguson acts. Luckily for United, the 70-year-old has the experience and command of these situations not to be panicked by the latest threat.
Arsenal and Chelsea were eventually overcome - but City are now not just in position to outmuscle United for any top targets Ferguson may fancy, as they did with Samir Nasri, they can also offer the glamour of being Premier League champions alongside Champions League football.
Such are the fine margins of glory and loss in the Premier League that Ferguson and his players will be haunted by the two goals conceded to Everton in the last seven minutes of a 4-4 draw at Old Trafford.
And of course there was that crushing 6-1 home defeat to City in October when the positive intent nurtured in United by Ferguson, even in that hopeless cause, allowed Mancini's side to punish their ambition and rack up late goals that proved to be priceless.
Ferguson rightly stated he was not going away - but he will also know with absolute certainty that Manchester City are not going anywhere either.