When Manchester United face Manchester City in tomorrow night’s Carling Cup semi-final first leg there is more than a Wembley place at stake: for the first time in a generation City start the match with greater confidence. The decision for Sir Alex Ferguson is whether to meet that challenge head-on or place trust in youth.
When the two clubs met at Old Trafford in September, United won the day with Michael Owen’s 96th minute winner. While Mark Hughes’ misdirected complaint over the length of injury time dominated the headlines, in truth the Reds were vastly superior on the day. Four months on and United’s form has stuttered, while City is revitalised under new manager Roberto Mancini’s stewardship.
Indeed, United’s FA Cup third round loss to Leeds United 10 days ago may have changed Ferguson’s mind about the Scot’s promise to trust in youth for the rest of the Carling Cup campaign. So poorly did Darron Gibson, Danny Welbeck and others perform that the Scot may bring out the ‘A’ team for tomorrow night’s clash.
City, who lost at Everton this weekend after four straight wins, is already a major threat to United’s supremacy according to Ferguson. City has not reached a domestic cup final since 1981 and failed to take home any silverware since 1976.
“You have to recognise they are a competitor now,” said Ferguson, who first faced City in a January 1987 FA Cup tie.
“We have had to wait a long time for it to be like that but they are obviously making a much better fist of their league programme this year than they have done in the past.
“You could not compare it to Rangers and Celtic but having rivals in the same city does create far more emotion.”
Edwin van der Sar, restored in goal for United’s weekend clash with Burnley, may keep his place as the Dutch legend continues to build match fitness after two months on the sidelines.
In defence Ferguson could restore Rafael da Silva at right-back, in place of Gary Neville who had a shocker against Burnley. Meanwhile, Paul Scholes – also off the pace at the weekend – will drop out of the starting eleven in favour of Darren Fletcher.
However, Ferguson is sweating on the fitness of Dimitar Berbatov, who limped through the Burnley match not with a knee problem as many suspected but a dead leg. Meanwhile, Ryan Giggs is unlikely to regain fitness in time to make the team for his 31st Manchester derby.
Typically, Ferguson has deployed five through midfield in the tougher matches this season but that decision will depend on whether the Scot chooses to deploy Wayne Rooney or not. With Michael Owen not suited to the lone frontman role, Ferguson may hand Mame Biram Diouf another shot at forcing his way into the first team picture following his weekend goal against Burnley.
But one player who doesn’t buy into the theory that City is in the ascendancy, with United – burdened with massive debt – on the slide, is Neville.
“I don’t see the game as an opportunity to reassert our dominance over City,” the former-England right-back told The Guardian.
“We’re quite comfortable with where we are. We are second in the league, we’re in the Carling Cup semi-final and we’re in the second phase of the Champions League, so we have nothing to prove.
“Our two games against Manchester City in the Carling Cup are massive for us. It is a competition we have done well in over the past couple of years, and no doubt they will want to do well too.
“It’s a local derby and one of the biggest games we have played against City for a long time. Certainly we expect it to be difficult. They are in good form, and it’s always difficult away against City. We will have to be at our best for the game at their ground.”
United will again face Carlos Tevez, who swapped Old Trafford for Eastlands in the summer after a £25 million deal was struck by City’s owners. The Argentinian, who has scored 12 Premier League goals this season including a hat-trick against Blackburn Rovers last week, has been vocal in his desire to put one over his former employers.
“The manager over the years has made many decisions with regard to players coming and going, and he has almost always been proved correct,” said Neville.
“I can’t disagree with his decision on Tevez. He was a good player for us but if the financial demands are too big then that’s just the way it goes. Other good players have left this club in the past; it’s not the first time it’s happened.”
As Neville once said, United is a club that moves on quickly. Should the Reds’ new number 32, Senegalese forward Diouf, strike home a late winner tomorrow night, nobody on the Red side of the City will care for Tevez.