Mark Hughes refused to be cowed yesterday by his old boss's outbursts against Manchester City, declaring himself "amused" by the fact that the club's high profile was irritating Sir Alex Ferguson and flatly stating that Manchester United, a poorer side without Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, had failed to reach the levels of last season.
In an often irreverent discussion of Ferguson ahead of tomorrow's Old Trafford derby, Hughes declared United to have been "below par" in all but last weekend's win at White Hart Lane. "They've lost two significant players from last year and any team can and will be affected because of that. You can't afford to lose players of that standard and not replace them. I don't think they've replaced them. I don't think they are playing as well as they did last year."
The eye-catching declaration underlined the City manager's confidence, with his side one of only two unbeaten in the Premier League. Hughes also poked mild fun at Sir Alex Ferguson's protestations over City's "Welcome to Manchester", Carlos Tevez poster. "We've discussed it on numerous occasions. It does really seem to have upset Sir Alex for some reason," Hughes said, grinning. "But we take it as maybe flattery – can we say? – that because maybe in recent years City haven't really affected the thinking of Manchester United to any great extent. Possibly that's changed now."
It was hard to avoid the impression that the nonchalant asides in Hughes' typically articulate discussion of the game were pre-planned. Week to week, Hughes is notoriously difficult to extract colourful answers from, yet here they came in abundance. There were small put-downs – "We possibly could have bigger challenges [than tomorrow's]" – and the intonation when Hughes spoke of the "six strikers I have on the books" suggested a swipe at Ferguson's overnight claim that City had seven.
There was also a thin smile as Hughes discussed Sir Alex's general response to City. "I'm sure Sir Alex is sick and tired of people sticking a microphone under his nose and asking him about us rather than United. That hasn't happened in recent years, and I can understand why he gets a little bit irritated about it, which is quite amusing from my point of view," he said.
The manager revealed that City will challenge the Football Association's improper conduct charge levelled against Emmanuel Adebayor for his celebration against Arsenal last Saturday. Hughes suggested Robin van Persie's celebrations after Arsenal's first goal – the subject of a complaint to police from City fans – were no better.
Rennes, in dispute with City over the loss of 17-year-old Jeremy Helan, have paid €120,000 (£107,000) in compensation to Chateauroux having taken the player Hamed Doumbia. Chateauroux again accused Rennes of a lack of ethics yesterday. It is not a charge Hughes feels City must answer. "For too long the top four or six has been set in stone and we're trying to change that," he said. "Maybe we should be given a little encouragement."