Rivals united by dreams of the way things used to be

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There was a big blue moon rising and Manchester United's fans saw it coming.

When the stadium lights dimmed before kick off last night, a lunar image was projected across the East Stand and the whole place bathed in its pale light. However, the opposing contingent reached for the two red flares they had smuggled past the stewards for just that moment and ignited them into the night sky, the billowing smoke still drifting over the pitch and into the back of the throat when the match was under way. United wanted no theatrics here, intent as they were that City's sepia tinted memories of their 2-1 League Cup semi-final first-leg win over the old enemy in 1969 would remain just that.

You might say it is indicative of how far these two clubs' paths have diverged since that December night 41 years ago that City actually saw fit to dedicate 16 pages of their match programme to it – indeed to publish a commemorative programme for a Carling Cup semi-final at all. But the players paraded the pitch before the game – Summerbee, Book, Bell and all – were the ones who went toe-to-toe with Best, Law and Charlton, and that's what they aspire to in the new era. The words of introduction when Joe Mercer's side came out onto the pitch sum up the current mission statement: "The ultimate blend of flair, creativity and hard work."

Never did the timing of a derby carry more resonance than this one – the Glazers extracting large amounts from United to repay their loans, two weeks after City were treated to the security of knowing that their owner has converted his loans into shares. The game kicked off to the backdrop of Lee Sharpe declaring what is going on at his old club "with the debt" to be "disgraceful and a huge shame; the hard work carried out by Sir Alex Ferguson and everyone at the club over the last 20 years is at threat."

Ferguson knew about the timing and what it would mean to have Carlos Tevez exposing the folly of United's failure to pay whatever it took to keep him last summer, which is why his starting line-up severely stretched his prior promise of "some youngish players" for United. The only surprise pick of the night turned out to be Roberto Mancini's 19-year-old Belgian centre back Dedryck Boyata. United, at full strength, needed the embodiment of the Ferguson era, Ryan Giggs, to go ahead. It was throwback to better days when he scored his first derby goal since his left-foot blockbuster in the 3-2 win at Maine Road 14 years ago.

But Tevez seized back the night, almost inexorably. The last time he cupped his ears – as he did in a gesture which will be probably be remembered for far longer than a top-four place, should City clinch one - was in front of the Old Trafford directors' box after scoring for United against City in last season's 2-0 derby win. He had just announced his frustration at a bit-part role at the club and his intention to leave, at the time.

The chants of "Fergie sign him on' were not all that will be echoing in United ears today. For all the power of those red flares, some of their fans are not even sure what colour they wish to wear any more. Supporters are being asked to wear the old Newton Heath strip of green and gold - the latest symbol of anti-Glazer protest. There is more than one Manchester club longing for a return to the way things used to be.