Sir Alex Ferguson has declared that Manchester City have replaced Liverpool as Manchester United's most implacable opponents, as the countdown to Monday's derby title clash begins.
For a manager with such an acute awareness of the geographic and historic dimension to United's rivalry with Liverpool, whose hegemony he set about dismantling, Ferguson's assertion that City "are our direct opponents now" was significant. Only three months ago, he said that "Liverpool still is the one".
Roberto Mancini's side have stayed in the title fight, however, and though Ferguson feels his own club – whom he revealed yesterday will enter arguably the most significant Manchester derby of all time without any injury concerns – remain favourites to run out champions, this is the game he now views as England's clasico for the foreseeable future.
"We have to get used to playing City in important games. They are not going away," said the manager, who is taking his players for a break in South Wales this weekend, as part of the preparations for the Etihad fixture. "The financial support they have means we will be playing them, in a lot of big games; cup finals maybe, semi-finals. It's there.
"If we are going to be contesting for league titles regularly, and I think we will be doing, it will become just as important as the Liverpool game. Maybe not in terms of the emotional part, because the Liverpool-United games are emotional, but certainly in importance.
"Probably at this moment in time it supersedes the Liverpool games in the sense that [City] are our direct opponents now. Manchester City are, without question, up against us to win titles and that is what I focus on. I only focus on the team that can actually affect our progress in terms of winning."
It was a statement that took Ferguson a long way from his demeaning City talk of two years ago. Though he joked, in the light of the 4-4 draw with Everton, that "I am a confirmed masochist, I joined about 26 years ago" he still spoke confidently of a 20th title. "We are in a better position than Manchester City . We can get two results, they can only get one – they have to win but we can draw and we can win. But my attitude and the club's attitude will be to win. I'm not thinking about what's past – I'm thinking about one game, Monday."
Ferguson observed, quite rightly, that Mancini's claims that the title remains lost are a device to ease the scrutiny on his own players, though several of City's players have divulged that it is a pretence. "He probably wants to take pressure off his own players," Ferguson said. "That's possible but it will not affect our approach or attitude to the game. We know exactly the situation we are in here."
Ferguson commiserated with the fans for the tension engendered by the failure to beat Everton – which means City will go top on goal difference if they win on Monday. "I think we are also smarting from throwing that game away last week but in the context of our history we almost expected it. We make it hard for ourselves. Our poor supporters have been subjected to that drama for years and years. God knows what they (our fans) are like just now but hopefully we will make amends on Monday.
"It's not a cup final. There are three games still, but it is an important game. I think it could decide the title."
Of Carlos Tevez's renewed impact, Ferguson said: "I have not watched the games a lot. Some of the highlights obviously, but he's scored a hat-trick [against Norwich] and that's an impact." He concluded: "I do not know if you thrive on it (the tension). I can't even say I can look forward to it, but I am up for it, I am prepared for it and I think my players will be prepared for it, so hopefully we will be OK.
"I suppose when the fixtures came out at the beginning of the season all roads pointed to this game. It was inevitable maybe."