It could be considered a kind of karma. In the 12 seasons since Manchester United, under pressure from the Football Association and the government, took part in the World Clubs' Cup in Brazil rather than the FA Cup, the third-round draw has thrown them up against Premier League opposition no fewer than eight times. For three successive years now it has been particularly spiteful, finding from 63 possible opponents needle matches against Leeds United (who brought off a giant-killing at Old Trafford), Liverpool and now Manchester City.
For Sir Alex Ferguson, this latest tie brings a sense of coming full circle, though not in circumstances he could have imagined. "My first year here I drew City at home," he said on Friday. "I was thinking: 'Christ, I've come down here and we've got City in a local derby.' That's the luck of the draw. It can happen." It was another age. Norman Whiteside's goal won the game between two sides in the lower half of the table, and although United went out to eventual winners Coventry City in the next round, they were at least on an upward trajectory; City were relegated and spent the next 15 years meandering between the divisions. As recently as two seasons ago, Ferguson was sufficiently confident to remark that he could not imagine ever starting a derby against his neighbours as underdogs – but that day has come. Any United followers fancying their team's chances against the holders at the Etihad Stadium today will be offered as much as 13-5 against such an outcome.
Ten days ago the odds would have been much shorter. With City held at West Bromwich, United were preparing to take over at the top for the first time since October until a calamitous home defeat by Blackburn Rovers. The 3-0 loss to Newcastle last Wednesday looked in some ways more serious, coming as it did with a recognisably stronger side that gave as feeble a performance as most could remember. "It's been a difficult period for us," Ferguson confessed, citing his problems in midfield as a prime reason. "Losing Darren Fletcher and the promise of [Tom] Cleverley was a big blow because we had not had that type of midfield player for a number of years. That was a loss and Anderson was a loss. We tried different combinations. But the patched-up team I had against Blackburn with Rafa [da Silva] and [Park] Ji-Sung... I had to try and get some energy in there and it became difficult for them. I brought Anderson on at half-time and you don't expect wonders after being out for three months. He'd only had [six] training sessions. But we can't worry too much about that.
"Where we are is where we are and we can't worry too much about being three points away from top of the League."
That last defiant note would have sounded more convincing were the Newcastle debacle not so fresh in the mind, the inadequacy on the night of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs being particularly apparent.
Whether through injuries, rest and rotation or simple lack of consistency, United have used 10 different combinations in that area this season, none appearing more often than Carrick and Giggs. In the 6-1 drubbing at Old Trafford in October, it was Fletcher and Anderson, probably the most energetic pair, who found themselves outpassed and bypassed. Nani and Ashley Young stayed out wide, Wayne Rooney did not drop particularly deep and so City's attacking threesome, backed up by Yaya Touré and Gareth Barry behind them, had the run of the place. If there is a consolation for United it is that neither are available today. Consolation for the neutral is that both sides are so short of defensive midfield players that it is difficult to imagine a repeat of the last League game at City's ground where a grim goalless draw resulted.
The October goal fest was more typical of meetings between them, though as rabid a Manchester Blue as the former winger Mike Summerbee believes the stunning result to be of less relevance than might be imagined. "I don't think you can compare games," he said. "It'll make United more aware of the progress City have made. United will be thinking more about us than they've done for a long time. It was a fantastic result at Old Trafford but it wasn't a one-off as we've played very, very well all season. They'll always say they were down to 10 men but we were outplaying them anyway."
Roberto Mancini, for whom Summerbee has high praise as "a very clever man, a very professional man", will not go shouting the odds, however much they may be in City's favour. Indeed, Mancini's regularly proferred respect for United on account of their past achievements may go too far for his own supporters, tending to suggest something close to a sense of awe. "United have strong mentality," he said. "They want to score and attack always. Every team who plays against United has a problem. They play with fear, because United have won everything for 25 years. They are a fantastic team. Also, when they are down 2-0 they can come back."
It is almost as if the memory of losing the Community Shield to them in August after leading 2-0 means more to him than events at Old Trafford two months later. Either way he knows that for all the hullabaloo this afternoon will generate, the derby that really matters is the Premier League meeting at the end of April.
How to beat United: Jones may be a golden boy but has he got the mettle to tackle Silva's majesty?
Bare statistics don't make allowances in the way that memory can. A scoreline of Manchester United 1 Manchester City 6 is what will be remembered from 23 October 2011, long after the fact that United's defender Jonny Evans was sent off right at the start of the second half and that the final three goals arrived in four minutes of added time.
It was the first two goals, however, which were scored when United were still in the game, that illustrated City's undoubted superiority as well as a tactical conundrum that Sir Alex Ferguson must solve today.
The key was the flexibility among City's front four attacking players and in particular the way in which David Silva, who would emerge as the game's outstanding individual, was allowed to float around at will.
James Milner, while essentially playing wide on the right, would often change wings and the two key goals came when the pair of them linked up on one side, overloading to get in behind the United defence.
In the 22nd minute it was down the left-hand side, Milner having moved over from his starting position. From a throw, Silva in the inside-left position played a forward pass for Milner who, with Chris Smalling not sufficiently tight to him, cut the ball back sharply for Mario Balotelli to shoot inside the far post.
On the hour, with Evans having been dismissed for holding back the lively Balotelli, Silva joined Milner on the right side, took a pass from him and played the return as Milner ran past him unmarked to finish a move of 15 passes, crossing for Balotelli's and City's second goal.
After that City were able to play on the counter-attack as United's 10 men pushed forward with such desperation that Sir Alex Ferguson accused them afterwards of "suicidal, crazy football".
Apart from a corner leading to the fourth goal (by substitute Edin Dzeko) the other goals all featured Silva. For the third one, he was again on the same side as Milner, who set up the excellent Micah Richards to cross for Sergio Aguero. The two late goals were Silva's finish at inside-right from Dzeko's through-ball and from the pass of the match – if not the season – volleyed through the middle by Silva to return the compliment.
With the defensive pair Yaya Touré and Gareth Barry absent, City may have to move Milner back into a holding role. Adam Johnson deserves a game, and would play wide, being equally capable of either switching wings or doubling up on the same side as Silva, to give United the same problem of how to cope with them again.
In Roberto Mancini's native Italian game, the answer would be to deploy a hard-nosed defender for a man-marking job on Silva. But United have only Phil Jones who could perform the role.
They will be reluctant to sacrifice him, though it is conceivable that after his shaky performance at Newcastle in midweek, he could move from the back line into midfield again.
But the key will be controlling Silva. Or hoping against hope that Mancini, underestimating the importance of the tie and the FA Cup to the fans, holds him in reserve.
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