James Lawton: Manchester gap is closing – due to decline of United

In City's 1-0 defeat of Chelsea in September, Roberto Mancini's side produced arguably the new season's most daunting show of competitive discipline
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The Independent Football

Who, really, does Monsieur Evra think he is kidding? The question is bound to be asked as the Manchester United full-back suggests that the journey across town to the City of Manchester Stadium tonight represents just a little of the old routine, another chance to spank those vulgar nouveau riche inferiors and make it six wins out of seven derbies since Sheikh Mansour rolled out the oil barrels.

Patrice is, course, merely following the lead of his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, whose standard propaganda line now says that Chelsea still represent the chief threat from English football's ultimately moneyed classes.

Ferguson suggests that Chelsea have the iron, the background and the tactical coherence to make them the supreme threat while hinting that City may still be displaying a little more wealth than common sense.

The old growler does not lack a certain degree of circumstantial evidence. The long-term value of throwing huge money at players of talent but unproven competitive character, and in some cases questionable mental equilibrium, has always been highly debatable and in the last few weeks there has been no shortage of supporting evidence, especially from the likes of Mario Balotelli and Emmanuel Adebayor.

However, United can trot out reasons why they will continue to maintain Manchester's status quo as long as they like without removing one uncomfortable fact. It is that they have not exactly been lighting up the sky themselves recently, and if they can claim, unlike City, to have recently beaten Wolves it was scarcely a statement of unbridled ambition and evolving power.

Indeed, if we stretch back over the last few weeks we do not have to look hard to pick out the result from one of the clubs that dwarfs all others.

It was not a collector's item – probably not what the sheikh had in mind while authorising more than £350m worth of transfer speculation – but it had a quality that if reproduced tonight would make the authors just about unbeatable.

It was City's 1-0 defeat of Chelsea in September. They were hard and relentless to the point where Carlo Ancelotti, the least whining of managers, complained about some of the ferocity of the home side's tackling, much of it from Nigel de Jong.

Ancelotti, with a droll smile that obviously concealed considerable pain, complained that the referee had left his whistle at home. What he did not do, though, was dispute the authentic power and commitment of the City performance – or the ability of Carlos Tevez to exploit a then rare outbreak of dithering by John Terry and Ashley Cole.

In a game of evenly distributed power, and considerable skill, City produced arguably the new season's most daunting show of competitive discipline. Roberto Mancini, such a distracted figure during the defeats at Wolves and Lech Poznan, will no doubt assemble his plutocrats and tell them that they have to produce something similar to the Chelsea victory tonight. Put another way, they must earn their money.

United, of course, are not exactly on the bread line and Ferguson's public confidence, we can be sure, will be translated into much dressing-room intensity.

So far, his players have yet to produce the kind of resolve, and self-belief City reserved for the team who were threatening to make a joke of the Premier League. It is why Evra might just as well be whistling on a dark night in the Bois de Boulogne when he talks of routine business. City certainly should have no difficulty in concentrating their minds – or believing that they can win, possibly by as many as two goals.