Neil Humphreys: Manchester United got a hole they can’t fill
With Cavani injured, the Red Devils lack strikers at crunch time
The town of Manchester isn't big enough for two clubs to succeed without a reliable centre-forward.
Only Manchester City boast the attacking versatility to cover that gaping hole marked for a No. 9. Manchester United do not.
Apparently, the English Premier League standings never lie. But they can play fast and loose with the truth, particularly in a pandemic-ravaged season that continues to test our tenuous grip on football's reality.
The table indicates that the Red Devils are the second-best team in English football. Their tedious 0-0 draw at Chelsea might suggest otherwise.
If there is a middle ground, a place where perception and reality meet, it's that sweet spot, six yards from goal, where natural-born killers usually do their thing.
United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn't have one, not at the moment anyway.
Edinson Cavani fits the bill, but his lack of fitness leaves United without a 34-year-old striker, which is hardly a ringing endorsement for their squad depth.
Their attacking impotence at Stamford Bridge provided a glimpse of an uncertain future in the top four, if a regular goal source isn't discovered quickly.
Solskjaer is often criticised for an underlying caution, sticking with two sitting midfielders and relying on Bruno Fernandes to conjure a victory.
But that wasn't entirely the case against Chelsea. United pressed. Their front four sought to pin back the Blues' wingers and pressure Edouard Mendy's goal, but nothing happened.
Poor Mason Greenwood continues to toil under the colossal weight of expectation, taking those shackles passed down from the likes of Joe Cole and Theo Walcott, the ones marked "the next big thing".
He might be. United's academy graduate is still only 19 and continues to tease with flashes of his prodigious talent. But he looked like a callow soul against Chelsea, a youngster suddenly thrown into the deep end without a rubber ring.
Another familiar, unproductive routine played out. An overawed Greenwood went off in favour of a less gifted forward.
Anthony Martial has many admirable qualities - which he often does his best to hide - but he's not an obvious striker.
Just four goals in 21 EPL matches makes a tough case to keep the Frenchman around in the long term, considering he isn't comfortable through the middle and Marcus Rashford prefers a wide position to cut inside.
The inspirational Englishman has enjoyed a peerless season off the pitch and a fine one on it.
Eighteen goals in all competitions leave him only four short of his season-best tally last term. No one at United - no one in European football for that matter - deserves an uplifting end to a magnificent campaign more than Rashford.
But he's still not a comfortable No. 9.
At his best, Rashford works in tandem with the resurrected Luke Shaw. Together, they cultivate openings and deliver to… well… no one at the moment.
Fernandes had an off-day against Chelsea. When he snoozes, United take a nap.
A few lopsided scorelines in a dysfunctional season elevated United's position whilst covering a longstanding flaw. They lack a cutting edge against the elite.
PENALTY-BOX STAGE FRIGHT
The stats read like a buffet of missed opportunities and penalty-box stage fright. Take your pick. No goals in open play against the "big six", just two goals in eight hours (and they were both Fernandes penalties) and five goalless games.
United could hardly be accused of throwing caution to the wind against top opposition.
Ironically, the Red Devils remain the league's highest scorers, an impressive stat inflated by those staggering victories against Southampton (9-0) and Leeds United (6-2). It's been that kind of season.
But recent goalless efforts against Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are more relevant and worrying, considering the upcoming trips to Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.
Cavani may return to face Crystal Palace on Thursday morning (Singapore time), but relying on a recovering veteran for the goals needed to secure a top-four finish is a risky business.
But Solskjaer may be out of options. Greenwood and Martial are not currently offering a solution to a persistent problem.
Champions League qualification is well within United's grasp, but only if they can start scoring when it really matters.