Wins over United give us the edge: Mancini

Cup mind games begin as Ferguson locks horns with his opposite number at City

The noise, if there still is any, has abated to a hum, like an errant fly on a sun-kissed beach.

Sir Alex Ferguson, with 45 points from 20 games – surprisingly his best return as Manchester United manager at this stage of the season – should not be aiming wild swats at something so close. He should be basking in the toothlessness of Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Instead, he has been stirred once more into confrontation – Manchester City were not supposed to be this good.

At United's Carrington nerve centre yesterday, before their third-round FA Cup clash at the Etihad Stadium tomorrow, it was controlled aggression. Ferguson and Roberto Mancini have yet to trade insults – see Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan or Arsène Wenger for previous reference points – but it is not far away.

Like jabs, Ferguson pawed at the face of his opponent. No, the historic 6-1 defeat on home soil to City three months ago will not be mentioned. Yes, City have an advantage, but only because they are at home. And no, they are not the best footballing team in England at the moment (56 goals from 20 games). That mantle belongs to Tottenham.

"They know we are right behind them (Manchester City)," he said. "It is easy to write Tottenham off but to my mind they are playing the best football in the country. They won 1-0 the other day and that indicates a certain determination about them now.

"City have a strong squad and an experienced squad. All the players have experience except for Balotelli. It is not unexpected where they are. Both of us are quite well aware that Tottenham are playing the best at the moment."

And in that he had his bite from Mancini. "It's difficult to say your neighbours play the best football," said Mancini. "It's hard. Until now we play the best football in the League. Over the next three or four months, I don't know."

Next Ferguson questioned whether or not Yaya Toure would really be absent on African Cup of Nations duty (City officials assured he had been waved off) and then he brushed aside questions about Wayne Rooney's Blackburn non-appearance. "I'm not getting into that," he said. Defeats against Blackburn and Newcastle have sharpened his senses. Now he must hope it has similarly affected his players.

The magnitude of tomorrow's game cannot be understated. First the FA Cup semi-final, then the October mauling, and all done with a more quiet assuredness than anyone could have predicted for a squad assembled at such vast expense; dissenting voices like Carlos Tevez brutally thrown overboard.

This time it was Mancini talking of the power of the mind, of the psychological importance of those victories.

"Yes, for us it was important to be playing in the semi-final last year but it was important to beat them at Old Trafford too," he said. "It was not important to win 6-1 because they played for 40 minutes with 10 men. It was important though as we played very well. We played very well in the semi and deserved to win. It was important because it was a semi-final but when you play a derby anything can happen. For us it was very important for our minds."

Ferguson's was a veiled challenge to his players. Manchester United have not held the trophy City presently hold since 2004. "It's not a motivating force for me, but it might be for the players who haven't got medals," he added. "Like Rio Ferdinand. He mentioned that last year to me, the fact he hadn't got an FA Cup winner's medal, and I couldn't believe that, considering the amount of time he's been at the club. We went through a really good period in the FA Cup in the 1990s, and then we beat Millwall, of course. But you would have to say we have been very unlucky in two finals, particularly the Arsenal final, and losing to Chelsea by a last-minute goal, so we haven't really carried much luck in those two finals. Everyone likes to win the FA Cup at some point in their lives.

"There is enough experience in this squad to cope with a really difficult tie. I always say with the FA Cup that if you get a home draw you always take anyone with a home draw and the advantage is with City, in respect of a home draw, but it's a cup tie, a local derby and anything can happen."

The two recent defeats were put down to bad finishing and two exceptional strikes at Newcastle. His experienced players were only just returning to fitness. "If questions are being asked about us at the moment, it's only because we have had two bad results," he added. "Only a couple of weeks ago people were saying how important our experience was going to be in the run-in, and I think it will be too, I think experience will be important."

And then of Rooney trying to overcompensate at Newcastle for his absence against Blackburn. "That's not a crime," he added. "Trying too hard's not a crime."

No one is trying more than the manager, however.

Man City v Man United

Man City: Hart, Kompany, Lescott, Richard, Zabaleta, De Jong, Milner, Johnson, Aguero, Silva, Dzeko

Man United: Lindegaard, Evra, Ferdinand, Jones, Rafael, Valencia, Carrick, Park, Nani, Rooney, Hernandez

Referee: C Foy (Merseyside)

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1pm (ITV 1)

Odds: Home - 11-10; Draw  - 12-5, Away  - 5-2.