James Lawton: Ferguson's side to fight fear that City are better

He has to fight and rage against the possibility that after so many years his number is up

If ever a night was made for Sir Alex Ferguson, and the peculiar force which has shaped his astonishing reign at Old Trafford, it is surely the one due to unfold at the Etihad Stadium.

Pushed into a corner by recent failures of nerve, and some basic defensive technique, facing a team which, man for man, has to be pronounced the more talented, Ferguson, right, must do what he has always done best. He has to fight and rage against the possibility that, finally, his number is up.

Some things, though, we can take utterly for granted. Ferguson's instinct to battle, to be aggressive in a way that his rival tonight, Roberto Mancini, sometimes still tends to embrace as though he is tentatively taking charge of a Molotov cocktail, will be as rampant as ever.

When someone like Nani – who despite his natural born brilliance can so easily disappear beyond the bounds of relevance – steps forward as one voice of conscience in the dressing room, you can guess the intensity of Ferguson's beseeching these last few days.

It is an old Ferguson device, the transplanted voice of indignation in the face of failure, and in an earlier crisis this season it was heard on the lips of Ryan Giggs.

Ferguson has to hope that he can again impose his own certainties on the fear that in such as Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez and David Silva, City simply have too much superior quality.

His most fervent supporters will no doubt draw their deepest encouragement from the belief that in any one-off he remains an opponent of the most daunting resilience.

While Mancini submitted to the pragmatic view that however flawed the professional character of Tevez he was still a player of world-class ability, and that Mario Balotelli could break a thousand rules and still remain a potent asset, Ferguson has stood nose-to-nose with Wayne Rooney and demanded, successfully, a new level of discipline and consistent performance.

After one mind-numbing professional lapse by Balotelli, Mancini said that he could longer trust his eccentric protégé – as he also said that Tevez would never play for him again.

This represents a degree of compromise that has rarely been part of Ferguson's modus operandi and is maybe another reason why some believe doggedly that when a season of huge significance reaches a potential breaking point tonight it will be his team showing the stronger competitive force.

It is a theory disputed by the bookmakers who have installed City as 6-5 favourites (and United at 11-5) and much of the professional opinion consulted yesterday. The consensus is strong for City. It says that however tentatively Mancini has arrived at his position of strength it is one that is indisputable now.

Yes, Rooney may again unearth flashes of irresistible force, as he did so memorably against City at Old Trafford last season , and United may even drum up some competence in the rudiments of defence. But then you consider the weight of City, the quality of both Aguero's ability, Tevez's capacity to concentrate his thoughts on something no more morally complex than finding a way to goal and the influence that can be wielded so powerfully by Yaya Touré.

This is a formidable accumulation of force by any standards and it makes City's status as favourites entirely just. However, they may want to note they still have one problem. It is in convincing the man who may be down but is not yet beaten. He has, of course, always been the last to know.

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