By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - The writing was on the wall for Manchester United the moment striker Robin van Persie was declared a non-starter for their derby against Manchester City on Sunday.
Even with Wayne Rooney producing an energetic display, the loss of the Dutchman with a groin injury left United toothless against a City side who revelled in a 4-1 victory at the Etihad.
Van Persie's 26 league goals were the reason United claimed the title last season, his timely interventions often papering over some obvious cracks.
Deprived of him against City, David Moyes would have hoped for a more robust response from the likes of Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and new signing Marouane Fellaini but instead his side produced a powderpuff performance.
In the first half in particular, United offered nothing going forward and only when City seemed to take their foot off the gas with the points already secure did they threaten.
Moyes said the loss of Van Persie had been a blow, although he refused to use it as an excuse for a performance that asked serious questions about the quality of United's squad.
"Our squad is really strong, obviously we miss Robin van Persie, it's a huge miss to anyone," Moyes told a news conference. "It was a big miss for us, yes.
"I don't think it's (his injury) that bad. He just felt something in his groin, he's actually done a little bit of training in the last couple of days.
"He didn't want to aggravate it."
England winger Young offered little threat for United and was substituted shortly after Samir Nasri put City 4-0 ahead in the 50th minute with Tom Cleverley taking his place.
Welbeck, despite his fast rise to England international, was also quiet, leaving Rooney to furrow tirelessly in a lost cause.
Rooney's demeanour was about the only positive for Moyes, whose first derby since succeeding Alex Ferguson in the United dugout will not be a happy memory.
"I thought Wayne Rooney was arguably the best player on the pitch today, he certainly didn't deserve to play in the losing team, that's for sure, he was outstanding today," Moyes said.
The England forward scored United's consolation goal with a sublime free kick to become the club's highest scorer in the fixture.
Rooney tried to draw some comfort from the closing stages of the game when United at least created some chances.
"I thought during the last 20 minutes we played some good stuff," Rooney told United's website.
"Had we done that earlier there might have been a different outcome, but it was too little, too late."
Moyes was dealt a cruel hand when the Premier League fixtures computer spewed out a torrid start to the former Everton manager's tenure.
In five games they have faced Chelsea, Liverpool and City, picking up only one point from those clashes and even the League Cup draw seems designed to test Moyes' mettle to the full with Liverpool looming again on Wednesday.
Another defeat in that game will have alarm bells ringing.
"We wanted to win more of those games," Moyes said. "We have to do that but maybe if these games were a bit later I might have had a better understanding of the players and the situation at the club.
"I think any manager taking over with the run of fixtures we have had would have found it difficult."
Sympathy might be in short supply for Moyes, for whom expectation has gone up several notches this season, but at least Rooney appears to be on board after appearing to be angling for a move to Chelsea in the summer.
"Thankfully we've got the game against Liverpool coming up Wednesday and it's something we are looking forward to now in the hope that we can get the victory to put this defeat to the back of our minds," said the England man. (Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Rex Gowar)