Sir Alex Ferguson has declared that Manchester City have replaced Liverpool as Manchester United's most implacable opponents, as the countdown to Monday's derby begins.
For a manager with such an acute awareness of United's rivalry with Liverpool, Ferguson's assertion that City "are our direct opponents now" was significant. Only three months ago, he said that "Liverpool still is the one". Roberto Mancini's side have stayed in the title fight, however.
"We have to get used to playing City in important games. They are not going away," said Ferguson, who is taking his players for a break in South Wales as part of preparations for the Etihad fixture. "The financial support they have means we will be playing them, in a lot of big games; cup finals maybe, semi-finals. It's there.
"If we are going to be contesting for league titles regularly, and I think we will be doing, it will become just as important as the Liverpool game. Maybe not in terms of the emotional part, because the Liverpool-United games are emotional, but certainly in importance.
"Probably at this moment in time it supersedes the Liverpool games in the sense that [City] are our direct opponents now. Manchester City are, without question, up against us to win titles and that is what I focus on. I only focus on the team that can actually affect our progress in terms of winning."
Ferguson spoke confidently of winning a 20th title. "We are in a better position than Manchester City. We can get two results, they can only get one – they have to win but we can draw and we can win. But my attitude and the club's attitude will be to win."
Ferguson observed, quite rightly, that Mancini's claims that the title remains lost are a device. "He probably wants to take pressure off his own players," Ferguson said.
Ferguson commiserated with the fans for the tension engendered by the failure to beat Everton last weekend – which means City will go top on goal difference if they win on Monday. "I think we are also smarting from throwing that game away but we almost expected it. We make it hard for ourselves... but hopefully we will make amends on Monday.
"I suppose when the fixtures came out all roads pointed to this game. It was inevitable maybe."