Ferguson backs battle-hardened United to topple City pretenders

Manager believes his side's big-game experience can be decisive factor in today's FA Cup semi-final at Wembley

It was the story of Sir Alex Ferguson's days running a pub on the Govan Road in Glasgow which most absorbed the Manchester City chief executive, Garry Cook, when the two men found themselves seated together at a dinner, a few years back.

The freedom of Manchester was being bestowed upon Sir Bobby Charlton at the town hall that night and the United manager's tales of community and domestic strife he had found himself policing in the mid-Seventies, at the pub he renamed "Fergie's", told Cook this was a man who had lived life in the raw. You just can't buy that kind of experience.

Cook might have expected his club to have come rather closer to Manchester supremacy by now than the solitary win in eight matches since entering Abu Dhabi ownership. Ferguson's experience is the principal reason why they have not and it was an asset the Scot last night declared could send his players beyond their 10th FA Cup semi-final of his United career. It was "possible" that City's desperation to win their first FA Cup semi-final in 20 years may play into United's hands, said Ferguson. But United, he confidently declared, have been here before. They would not freeze.

"I know my own players and, obviously, they have been used to big game situations many times, so we don't have to conquer that," Ferguson said. "[The atmosphere] is very difficult to block out, simply because sometimes the occasion overrides everything else. And Wembley is an occasion stadium. When you go there it's for an important reason, and that can affect some players. I don't think there's any doubt about that. It's a fact. But you just have to prepare the players properly, make sure the information you give them is fine. Their own temperament, and their own beliefs, then come into it, of course. I don't see anything more to it than that."

Experience is certainly an asset which Ferguson will believe gives him an edge on Roberto Mancini, a manager 23 years his junior. United have won eight of those 10 semi-finals under him, while Mancini's only competitive visit to Wembley was in the losing Sampdoria side in the 1992 European Cup final against Barcelona, in the old stadium. The respective fortunes of the clubs in their treatment rooms have also favoured United hugely, as they are missing only Darren Fletcher and the unfortunate Owen Hargreaves. City – without Carlos Tevez – may at least welcome back Micah Richards. Wayne Rooney travelled south with United yesterday. Tevez was not present when City alighted from their train at Watford and there were doubts from the club last night that the City captain would be at Wembley.

And while United can take comfort from the momentum of a seven-game winning run since their league defeat at Anfield, Mancini has spent the week employing any strategy available to dispel the memory of Monday's 3-0 defeat at the same place. Tactics have includ ed taking all the blame himself and not screening DVDs of the match. "We are ready for this," said Ferguson. "The confidence is high and we are playing well. We are fighting for every corner, which is a great attitude to have at this time of the season, so we look forward to it."

Edwin van der Sar became the latest United player to cast aspersions on City, yesterday. "Maybe for them, the game is not played with the heart quite so much and more with their quality players. We have plenty [of quality players]," said the goalkeeper. But Ferguson was careful to avoid any sniping.

He does not feel the headlines associated with that reflect well on United and he dismissed Paul Scholes' claim of Thursday that City would not be United's genuine rivals until they have taken a trophy. "They'll always be our rivals. It's a derby game, it's always been that way with City and that will never change," the manager said.

While the weight of expectation of a long-awaited trophy is for Mancini to bear, Ferguson finally fielded a question about the treble without rejecting the idea. "We are playing well and as I've said we have the great determination of our players that has given us a good chance," he said.

Ferguson is likely to start with Javier Hernandez again, alongside Dimitar Berbatov as Wayne Rooney serves out his two-game ban. Mancini is more likely to go with one striker in Carlos Tevez's absence. Edin Dzeko, rather than Mario Balotelli, appears the front-runner, with David Silva floating in from the left and Adam Johnson on the right. City are also likely to deploy three holding midfielders again, probably Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong operating with Yaya Touré. Richards' selection ahead of Pablo Zabaleta, who missed the Liverpool game having only two days' training after nearly three weeks' compassionate leave, will depend on how sharp he has looked these past three days. Mancini likes the attacking option he offers and will select him if he can.

Ferguson, who may also prefer Chris Smalling to Rio Ferdinand, concluded his press conference by fielding a reminder that this was the season when Rooney had questioned the quality of United's squad. "I don't think he actually really meant that," Ferguson replied. "I think he was prompted. He probably thought he could make me angry." The equanimity with which Ferguson entered the weekend yesterday suggested that nothing possibly could.

Manchester City vs Manchester United

Lee Dixon’s verdict: Roberto Mancini’s side have been in patchy form and will miss Carlos Tevez, but that all goes out the window in a derby. They will be up for this Wembley showpiece against their neighbours and could edge it.

Kick-off: Today, 5.15pm (ITV1)

Prediction: Draw, City to win on pens.

Police have advised supporters travelling to Wembley that the M1 from junctions 1-4 will be shut due to a fire yesterday

United's route to the treble

Today: FA Cup semi-final Manchester City (Wembley)

Tues: Premier League - Newcastle Utd (a)

23 April: Premier League - Everton (h)

26 April: Champions League semi-final - Schalke (a)

1 May Premier League - Arsenal (a)

4 May CL semi-final - Schalke (h)

8 May Premier League - Chelsea (h)

14 May Premier League - Blackburn (a) Or FA Cup final (Wembley)*

22 May Premier League - Blackpool (h)

28 May Champions League Final*

*Depending on semi-final results

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