Manchester City timed things rather excellently yesterday when they chose the eve of their biggest league derby in over 40 years to call Carlos Tevez to account.
It had been widely expected that they would not overshadow the build-up to tomorrow's Manchester derby by staging the striker's disciplinary hearing so soon before it, but this felt like City doing things their way and beginning to cast off Sir Alex Ferguson's cast-off once and for all. It seemed like they were stealing United's clothes when they signed Tevez three years ago but yesterday they were a club standing on two feet, putting all that "Welcome to Manchester" baloney in the past, along with the old obsessions of getting one over on United. No better time to do it than the weekend they walk into Old Trafford as the league leaders.
In a build-up marked yesterday by some extraordinary managerial courtesies which took us a very long way from Paddy Crerand knocking out David Wagstaffe in the tunnel at Maine Road in 1963 and Nobby Stiles punching the dressing room wall in the same stadium, Micah Richards was the one most worth listening to when he spoke of the significance of also dispensing with that City bête noire – the Old Trafford "35 Years" [since winning a trophy] banner. "To be honest, it was more our fans who got worked up about that banner," Richards said. "United now know, much as they won't say it, we are a genuine threat. To get that banner taken down is quality. We have got the last laugh."
This was good banter, not a malicious taunt, and Richards spoke with a smile on his face – but the words reflected a Manchester City who arrive with identity, 27 goals to United's 25, and two points more at the top. When Roberto Mancini said yesterday that his former chief executive Garry Cook had been right to suggest City could ultimately be as big as United – "I think this as well. I think that should be our target" – the City manager framed the aspiration as something less parochial than a fight between two institutions separated by a five-mile stretch of the Greater Manchester road network. "When you have Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, you work to be like one of them," he said. "This should be our target."
The stakes are so high and the risk of hubris so great that it was difficult to discern how sincere either manager was amid their mutual appreciation yesterday. Mancini was still making his way in the game at Sampdoria when Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in 1986 and after a check with his translator about the enunciation of the number "69", he declared that "it must be difficult to get to his age and have the same strength and every day want to win". Mancini does not seem to expect the same longevity. "Kit man in the new training facility!" he said, when asked what he would be doing at that age. "Like Chappy eh?!" with a nod to Les Chapman, currently City's man in possession of the vests.
The Italian, who reaches his 100th game in charge of City tomorrow, was more convincing when locating a deficit between his own side and that of the manager 23 years his senior. It is 43 days since Mancini declared United to be "two yards ahead" of City and yesterday he said this could only partially be revised down. "Now it's one yard," he said. "United over City – it's one yard now because we've worked very well and reduced the gap."
United remained the better club because of an amorphous quality he did not entirely define but which was located in that fabled psychological rigour Ferguson instils in his players. "United is United," was how Mancini defined it. "It is like a team that every year wins something. I think when one team every year continues to win it is normal to be there [ahead of the rest]. United has one thing that we don't have yet: when they play badly they win the game. We are missing that."
"United is United" in other ways, too – like players warming up when asked, not simply by dint of the manager's authority but because of an inner dressing-room code, inculcated by generation succeeding generation at the club. The discipline is self-policing. It allows incendiary bust-ups but not a Tevez type of insurrection.
Had City signed John Terry from Chelsea two years ago and not lost faith in Craig Bellamy, they might have someone to police such a regime but that's where the deficit lies and it may take several years to make up. Mancini has watched games at Old Trafford that will tell him he should have hope for tomorrow, nonetheless. "Norwich had I don't know how many chances. Chelsea [was the same]," he enthused – and with United by no means unbreachable, the temptation must be to attack them. He will probably revert to defensive type though, and was last night leaning towards starting with James Milner rather than Samir Nasri, on the basis that City will need to spend time winning back possession. Expect two holding midfielders, too. "If we leave Old Trafford with a draw that will be good but we do not go with that mentality," he said, which seemed significant.
He must also rein in his full-backs to prevent United's wide men causing the same carnage which befell City at Franck Ribéry's hands at Bayern Munich last month.
It was Roy Keane who railed against a United side "deceived into thinking we were something better than we were by beating nothings in the Premiership" amid United's European failings after 1999. Tomorrow will tell us whether City are something similar. Though their 5-1 win at Tottenham in August was a statement, their fixture schedule has been generous – six of their eight games coming against sides in the bottom eight. Mario Balotelli is likely to be favoured ahead of Edin Dzeko up front, with training yesterday focusing on getting him in behind defenders.
Ferguson acknowledged for the first time yesterday that something clicked when City won the FA Cup in May. "It was the first time they'd won something for 35 years and that is a turning point," he said. "We all reach points in life and say: 'This is a different life now', whether it is a job or winning the lottery. Look at that couple who won the lottery – €110m – do you not think that was a turning point in their life! We all have points in our lives when it happens."
The Abu Dhabis have delivered many times more cash than that – but it's an expensive business getting Manchester United out of your system.
Noisy Neighbours: Recent Manchester ding-dongs
United 4-3 City, 20 Sept 2009
Manchester City believed that they had taken a point after Craig Bellamy scored their third equaliser of a thrilling game in the final minute. But six minutes into stoppage time, Michael Owen slotted home Ryan Giggs' pass to give United a remarkable 4-3 victory.
City 2-1 United, 19 January 2010
Carlos Tevez scores twice as City go into a 2-1 first-leg lead in the Carling Cup semi-final. Tevez celebrates his second goal in front of the technical areas, having moved from United to City six months before.
United 3-1 City, 27 January 2010
A week later, Wayne Rooney sends United into the Carling Cup final with a stoppage time headed goal, four months after Owen's similarly late winner. The tie had been set for extra time but Rooney made it 4-3 on aggregate.
United 2-1 City, 12 February 2011
With 12 minutes remaining, the game is level at 1-1 and City look to be coming away from Old Trafford with a crucial point. Rooney again intervenes, producing one of the greatest goals in Manchester derby history: an acrobatic bicycle-kick into the far corner to win the game.
City 1-0 United, 16 April 2011
A tense FA Cup semi-final at Wembley is settled by Yaya Toure's second-half goal, sending City through to their first final for 30 years. Mario Balotelli's celebrations in front of United fans at the final whistle led to scuffles between players after the match.