The thinly veiled pretence that the Premier League title is about anything more than a Manchester derby has been stripped away almost entirely. Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini were reflecting on their 30 April encounter at the Etihad Stadium yesterday, and they could at least agree that everything was probably now pointing to that fixture.
Mancini said he saw Manchester United winning all their games bar that one before the end of the season and Ferguson, while slightly less generous, did not see City dropping many points. "It is going to be a massive game either way," Ferguson said of his date with destiny in the stadium he likes to call the Temple of Doom.
All that pleasant talk of Tottenham Hotspur being champions has evaporated, because we have reached that stage of the season when the niceties are dispensed with.
"I'm not predicting anything or anyone beating us now," Ferguson said of the Spurs challenge. And as for the idea of United knocking Tottenham Hotspur out of the equation at White Hart Lane tomorrow? "We're not interested in anyone else's challenge." That's how it gets at this time of the year.
It was remarkable that he should be here, in his training kit, contemplating a 20th title in a season in which you might have expected United, in a transitional phase, to have been eclipsed by City. Here United are, though, not the most convincing and not the best side in the land but with an 89th-minute win at Norwich last Sunday that summed up their powers of endurance.
"It shows we have the nerve to complete a game. That is a good thing. The temperament is OK," Ferguson said.
Tomorrow marks the end of a difficult period of league fixtures, with Tottenham presenting the only meaningful hurdle between now and the Etihad – though the north London club's dismal record against the Premier League champions does not augur well for a proper contest. Twenty-five games have passed since Spurs won.
Ferguson ruminated on the aspects of this weekend which he will savour, including the old-fashioned White Hart Lane, a football pitch he considers sublime, and Harry Redknapp. But his real reason to rejoice is closer to home. United's season has been restored by Paul Scholes, who can expect a role tomorrow, which will take him within two games of Bill Foulkes' position as the third-most-fielded United player of all time.
Scholes, whose 686 appearances would be far closer to Ryan Giggs's 900 were it not for the injuries which have interrupted him, seems more likely by the week to be inching towards Sir Bobby Charlton's 758 this time next season.
"I think Paul Scholes knew right away when he went coaching with the reserves and took part in the sessions, he realised: 'I can hack it'," said Ferguson, who never tires of relating this comeback. "He came to me and said he'd made a mistake. The evidence we are seeing now is he is right. His form has been fantastic. I haven't discussed his future with him but on the evidence we have seen at the moment there is no reason why he shouldn't [continue]. When I said to him last year, 'You'll give me 25 to 30 games,' it wasn't enough for him in his opinion. But I think he may look at it differently now."
The role of the quiet man, Michael Carrick, must not be understated either. "He's a different personality; he's a quiet personality but that can mislead a lot of people into thinking he needs encouraging all the time and that's not the case," Ferguson said. But the most absorbing contest on the White Hart Lane pitch tomorrow may be Scholes against Luka Modric.
"Scholes and Modric are both intelligent footballers, both influence their teams," said Ferguson. "They have the same qualities in terms of control of the game and their passing consistency. The one thing people under-estimate about Modric is that he has terrific stamina."
As manager of the last team standing in the fight to haul back City, Ferguson is entitled to discuss that quality.
Classic: Spurs vs United
Sep 2001 Spurs 3-5 Manchester United
Spurs were three ahead by half-time before United mounted an unlikely comeback.
Dec 1998 Spurs 2-2 Manchester United
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored two but Sol Campbell equalised.
Jan 1996 Spurs 4-1 Manchester United
Spurs thrashed a United side featuring the hapless French defender William Prunier, with Chris Armstrong scoring two.Reuse content