Paul Scholes still winces at the memory of "that goal", as he puts it: Andy Hinchcliffe's header that put Manchester City 5-1 up in the Maine Road derby 21 years ago, a result that Gary Pallister later disclosed had left Sir Alex Ferguson "in shock... practically speechless". But City do not pose the biggest challenge to Manchester United, Scholes points out in the course of a conversation in which his aversion towards the neighbours becomes incrementally more evident.
"When they are fourth or fifth or wherever they are in the league, I don't think they can be classed as a main rival," he says. "Our main rivals are obviously Arsenal and Chelsea. City are just a rival because of where they are [on a map]." But losing to them? Well, that is like nothing else. "It is painful," he says. "Horrible. You hate losing against anybody, but City is bad."
Any comparison between the current City and United sides teases out Scholes's sense of disparity between tomorrow's FA Cup semi-finalists. "Without Wayne [Rooney], we can bring in our top scorer, [Dimitar] Berbatov. What City can do [without Carlos Tevez], I'm not so sure. [Edin Dzeko] hasn't adapted yet. It takes time."
Yet the 36-year-old admits that the Abu Dhabi investment has set United more on edge approaching these games. The sharper United approach has contributed, Scholes believes, to the fact that City have beaten United only once since the Arabs moved in – "and that game was a first leg, with us having another game to make up for it," he can't resist adding. "They will obviously be pissed off at that."
He detects more concentration in the United dressing room now, when City are the opponents. "In the Nineties maybe, it wasn't intense as it is now because they didn't have what they have now. We were going into derbies expecting to win them. Them getting the money has probably spurred us on a bit more. It does give you a little bit more of an edge to make sure that you do win."
United's assiduousness has made late Red winners a characteristic of clashes between the sides in this era, with Rooney's extraordinary strike at Old Trafford in February just the latest. "We have nicked the games in the last minutes," Scholes says, brightening at the thought. "Michael Owen's done it, Wayne did it last season and I've done it. That's the difference that maybe there is between the two teams. We have a belief that we can beat anybody, but if City have that, I'm not too sure."
It says something for Scholes's sentiments towards City that last season's 90th-minute goal at Eastlands – which was not enough to take United to a record fourth consecutive title – is to his mind "a major highlight of my career, one of the best things I have ever done". Ferguson may well start with Scholes tomorrow, drawing on that little obsession he has of knowing who plays well against whom. Scholes's record of seven goals against City is bettered only by Sir Bobby Charlton, with nine, Eric Cantona (eight) and Joe Spence (eight). "I'm not sure if they still see me as the main threat, but it's obviously nice if they think that about it," he says. "Whether they do or not, I'm not sure."
There is that unmistakeable sense of doubt about whether Scholes should heed Ferguson's pleas to give him another season. "People always say you should play as long as you can but there comes a time when you can't physically do it," he says. "I'm wary of that and I just want to make sure it is done at the right time."
Incidentally, Scholes flatly rejects suggestions that he will play anywhere else – be it Oldham or Qatar. The feeling that a treble is achievable first permeated the United dressing room after Tuesday night, he says, but you sense a semi-final win would surpass anything. "There will be 30,000 fans from each side, so it's the biggest game we've had against City for a while," Scholes concludes. "So whoever loses will be devastated."