It is difficult to decide which match against Wigan Athletic in the next 10 days has the greater poignancy for Sir Alex Ferguson. Is it the Carling Cup final tomorrow which Manchester United's manager has loaded with significance despite the lowly status that competition once held for him? Or the Premiership fixture on 6 March, which will be played in the long, dark shadow of three engrossing English encounters with Barcelona, Benfica and Real Madrid in the following two days?
Without wishing to denigrate the Football League's competition, or the hard work of Wigan, neither match seems to have much place in the life of a club that regards itself among the world's élite. Participation in a competition that occupies the margins of the thoughts of the Premiership's top clubs and exclusion from the one they care about the most. "Winning one trophy is good, I tell you," Ferguson said yesterday. "No matter what trophy it might be, you've got to take it." But while he would have us believe that all trophies are equal, even this old firebrand trade unionist would have to admit some trophies are more equal than others.
The dedication of Chelsea to winning the Carling Cup last season is some justification that the trophy has greater value now. But Jose Mourinho's side's victory was the first cup for that team, a springboard to the Premiership and perhaps something even greater. For United and Ferguson, tomorrow's match feels more like a salvage job, the willingness to take anything on offer.
A telling comparison can be made with the time United last contested the final of the League Cup against Liverpool three years ago. After their 2-0 defeat in Cardiff on 2 March, United won nine and drew one of their last 10 Premiership games to overcome Arsenal's five-point lead and take the title. They find themselves 12 points adrift of Chelsea now. In 2003, reaching the final suggested an omnipotence - the power to get there even when they did not care - now no one at Old Trafford would celebrate the fact that tomorrow is Wayne Rooney's only realistic chance of a trophy in two years at the club.
Ferguson's powers of self- justification, however, remain undiminished and he argued yesterday that his club's treble in 1999 - they barely concerned themselves with the League Cup that year - had reinvigorated the competition and made life that much more difficult for United. "So it's not easy winning trophies now," he said. "We had a great spell in the Nineties, a phenomenal spell, but from the moment we won the European Cup, there was a catch-up from other clubs and we face much stiffer competition."
On the heartache of watching the Champions' League knockout stages on television, Ferguson jovially recounted an anecdote from his days at Aberdeen when he told his players after an early exit from European competition they had better "get used to watching Coronation Street because Wednesdays are important nights in European football". How the Glazers' accountants will have chuckled at that one. The club's American owners will have found the explanation of exactly where the Carling Cup ranks in terms of priority for England's biggest clubs even less entertaining.
It will look more than a little strange if, in the event of victory on Sunday, Ferguson launches into the same kind of vigorous post-match dance on the pitch that accompanied the 2004 FA Cup final triumph. The League Cup is, after all, the competition that he scorned first. Not in 1994, when the team including David Beckham and Paul Scholes played Port Vale, but the following year when a United side that included Pat McGibbon and Kevin Pilkington lost 3-0 at home to York City (and 4-3 on aggregate). Enthusiastically reclaiming the spirit of the League Cup 10 years later will not solve any of their fundamental problems.
Neither can United hope to compare the significance of this match to what it represents for Wigan Athletic and their manager, Paul Jewell. The winners of the three major domestic trophies each season since 1996 have come from outside the group of United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea only six times - and all six have been winners of the League Cup. Leicester City twice, Aston Villa, Tottenham, Blackburn and Middlesbrough. History will tell Jewell and his players that this is their one chance.
One of the many triumphs of Jewell this season is that he has shown the narrowing of standards between the Premiership and the Championship, with a team that is drawn, for the most part, from those whose careers have been played outside the top flight. In Paul Scharner he has made one of the best January transfer window signings in terms of pure impact on the team - he has nine appearances and two goals already. At £2m Scharner cost a lot less than the £12.5m Ferguson lavished on Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, but do not expect either of them to start tomorrow.
Scharner could have joined Birmingham City - undoubtedly a bigger club by reputation - but the Belgian had already spotted the tide turning in English football. When Wigan left for Cardiff this week, there was a crowd outside the JJB Stadium to wave the players off: it was a moment of old-fashioned, innocent excitement that deserved to be captured in sepia.
Jewell will recognise that his best chance comes in establishing supremacy over Ferguson's midfielders, a task that Liverpool accomplished simply enough in the FA Cup fifth round on Sunday in a display that will surely have dissuaded the United manager from pairing Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher in the centre again. Ferguson could have done nothing about the injuries to Paul Scholes and Alan Smith, but it goes without saying that against Jimmy Bullard, Scharner and Graham Kavanagh he needs a more robust pairing.
United have played seven different central midfield pairings since the turn of the year and the one most likely to feature tomorrow is the default setting of Fletcher and John O'Shea. There is a temptation to play Rio Ferdinand there, as he has against Blackburn in the Premiership and Wolves in the FA Cup, but the central defender's influence is required in the back four. Especially against a striker who has enjoyed the kind of season that Jason Roberts has had.
The prospect of Roberts, 28, with 13 goals already this season, let loose on Vidic is not worth the risk to United - either in terms of losing their only final of the season or having the confidence of their £7m Serb destroyed so quickly. Stéphane Henchoz and Arjen De Zeeuw should theoretically not have the pace to deal with Rooney, but then these two veterans have spent most of the season confounding those who would write them off.
At least tomorrow there will be something at stake, even if it is United who have a great deal more to lose than gain. Come 6 March, when these two teams meet in the Premiership in Wigan, the rest of the country will be looking elsewhere, towards three absorbing Champions' League games the relative merits of which not even Ferguson would try to dispute.
Road to Cardiff: Wigan and Manchester United's route to the Millennium Stadium
* SECOND ROUND Wigan 1 Bournemouth 0
(Manchester United given bye)
* THIRD ROUND Man Utd 4 Barnet 1
Miller, Richardson, Rossi, Ebanks-Blake
Wigan 3 Watford 0 (aet)
Taylor, Johansson 2
* FOURTH ROUND Man Utd 3 WBA 1
Ronaldo (pen), Saha, O'Shea
Wigan 1 Newcastle 0
* QUARTER-FINAL Birmingham 1 Man Utd 3
Saha 2, Park
Wigan 2 Bolton 0
* SEMI-FINALS first leg Blackburn 1 Man Utd 1
Wigan 1 Arsenal 0
* SEMI-FINALS second leg Man Utd 2 Blackburn 1
Van Nistelrooy, Saha
Arsenal 2 Wigan 1 (aet)