FOR the first seven rounds of the Premier League, it looked like Jose Mourinho's Manchester United had recaptured the swagger of old, that they could match Manchester City's relentless pace and make good on all that money spent.
Opponents were being swatted aside - United won four of those opening seven games 4-0 - as the theatre of Old Trafford started to dream a little once again.
But now it looks as though, just maybe, United weren't quite the monster they appeared.
Manchester United v Tottenham is live on SBS from 10pm (AEDT) Saturday night.
All of United's big wins came against teams currently placed 14th or lower. Teams already battling for survival. And United bullied them.
There were warning signs, however, against Stoke, a 2-2 draw where Mourinho dropped Juan Mata for Ander Herrera, sacrificing creativity for stability.
And then few weeks later, Mourinho withdrew into himself even further at Anfield, revealing how his fear of Liverpool's vaunted attack was greater than the faith in his own team's ability to expose their rivals' awful defence.
That timidity was again on display in the shock loss to Huddersfield, as United struggled to break down an organised team that harried and harassed them. The Terriers didn't roll over like those early wins.
United's fixtures have been kind but the analysis is revealing. Liverpool, now ninth, are the highest-placed opposition Mourinho has faced. A stifling scoreless draw. Then Southampton, 10th. A chiselled 1-0 win. And Huddersfield, 11th.
United are still joint second but their away form is the worst of the top four and they have quickly dropped five points behind City. And they haven't yet faced a top-four side.
This weekend, however, they finally face a real title challenger in Tottenham, a coach and team who are making Mourinho look slow, old-fashioned and even just a little scared.
Look how Spurs took Liverpool apart last weekend. Jurgen Klopp's side have looked shaky for some time but Mauricio Pochettino's side fully exposed their weaknesses, taking advantage of the structural problems and poor decision-making at the back.
Liverpool were humiliated. And Spurs made it look easy.
The question this weekend is whether Mourinho has the guts to stand up to them. Old Trafford should be home to swashbuckling football, to performances that leave the head reeling and the heart pumping.
Mourinho is more likely to have us head-scratching.
Spurs have the best away record in the league - four wins, 12 goals scored - better than City. Mourinho won't want to lose. City face West Brom on Sunday, so play negative and he could be seven or eight points behind by the end of the weekend.
That urge to not expose or embarrass himself, however, could do just that.
Granted, the Old Trafford crowd isn't what it once was - but if Mourinho is as cautious as he was at Anfield on home ground, eyebrows will be raised and questions will be asked. United is one of those clubs where winning alone isn't quite enough. You have to win the right way.
So much for the United way …
Injuries have hurt United - but while Paul Pogba is a big loss from the midfield, surely Maroune Fellaini isn't the beating heart of Mourinho's team.
Tottenham will go to Old Trafford with one thing on their mind - victory. And they will attack. Big games against Real Madrid and Liverpool have underlined their quality and confidence.
In a turn around, the visitors will probably have to try and prise open the home team. But with Harry Kane and Delli Ali, they have the ability to do just that.
Spurs haven't won at Old Trafford since the last day of the 2000-2001 season. Alex Ferguson used to dismiss their visits with the epithet, "Lads, it's Tottenham …"
Jose Mourinho won't be saying that this weekend.
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