So we now know that a City tattoo has – ahem – given Sir Alex Ferguson the needle. It is the one he read about in the newspaper which proclaims "Manchester City – Champions League winners 2011" and whose custodian, one Kirk Bradley, is now trying to work out what to do with. "I might get the '11' changed to a '17'," Mr Bradley explained recently. Ferguson would probably say he is being optimistic.
Roberto Mancini also knows something about tattoos, except that the one the Manchester City manager wears on his right leg marks a trophy won – his Serie A title as a Sampdoria player in 1991 – not one he is still dreaming about. That's the way of things with the Italian managers. Achieve and then talk. Ferguson and Patrice Evra have both accused City of being all mouth and no action in the past few days but you won't find Mancini and his compatriots engaging in that very British pre-match ritual of verbal sparring because there's an almost superstitious knowledge in their country that this activity has a habit of coming back to bite you. It's why Carlo Ancelotti disappoints on these big occasions and why Mancini steered such an indefatigable course away from controversy yesterday. His unexpected reference to Ferguson as "Fergie" was about as disrespectful as it got.
What's left to talk about anyway? Every City/United derby these days seems to be billed as the most important ever and hyped to the point that there are simply no more ways of asking Ferguson how City's challenge feels (the answer always takes in the folly of Sunderland's gross outlay on wages in the 1950s) or asking Mancini the same about the Stretford End banner charting the years (currently 34) since the last City trophy. "It's their stadium; they can do what they want," was how Mancini put that one to bed again.
The City manager has been surprised by the absence of pure football questions he fields in Britain and the tactics of this evening certainly seemed a long way off again yesterday. In the vacuum, it was a seemingly rather anodyne reflection made by Ryan Giggs, in the course of the otherwise fairly dreadful ITV documentary Eric Cantona: Looking for Manchester on Tuesday night, which has talked most to the events on the pitch tonight. Cantona, Giggs explained, was a player who could single-handedly "dictate the course of a match – decide it" and the footage of him doing precisely that, which played as Giggs spoke, made you wonder who could oblige now.
Mancini's decision to dispense with Craig Bellamy deprives him of one of the rare players bestowed with this gift, though City do have David Silva, who seems increasingly to be in possession of it, and Carlos Tevez. Significantly, Joe Hart's discussion of his captain in an interview at Platt Lane – a few hours before the Cantona documentary screened – touched on the same subject of players in whose gift games like tonight's rest. "He can carry a team and he can carry ten men," Hart said of Tevez. "If we were stinking on a Saturday and Carlos played well, there's a good chance that we would win."
And United? Well, they are without Wayne Rooney, will probably be without their next two most influential players, Nani and Ryan Giggs, and when you try to list those who else can "decide it" as Giggs said, the paper looks blank. Ferguson certainly goes into this match desperately reliant on the 36-year-old they've started calling "SatNav". Paul Scholes made his derby debut in the 5-0 win against City 16 years ago to this day. They're still looking to him.
Ferguson did demonstrate to Abu Dhabi once again this summer that money can't buy you knowledge in this game: the £7m Javier Hernandez looks an immeasurably better prospect than £24m Yaya Touré. But a side reliant on Hernandez, Gabriel Obertan and even Bebe, as United's has suddenly become, is one on the down turn of a development cycle and it was in the midst of the extraordinary saga which seemed to have Rooney on his way to City, three weeks ago, that Ferguson came closest to admitting that fact. "When you see Manchester United at the moment, with all these young players – 14 of them under 22 – you can't see Manchester United three years ahead. But you are not thinking about that. To maintain success at any football club is not a certainty. I always believe a four-year cycle is the most you can achieve. There are very few teams who can create more."
In short, City's moment is here. Their own development is far from complete, but never in their period of Arab enrichment have they had a better chance to overcome United. In part, it is because Abu Dhabi has equipped them with Tevez, David Silva and half a dozen more fine players. But in equal part, it is because of those natural peaks and troughs which United – like so many sides – must work through. And because injury, illness and, in Rooney's case, life, can conspire to affect a club at the most inconvenient moments.
The margins of error can be desperately slim when titans collide. "Maybe we can lose because in football you can always lose or win, but when there is a game between two top squads anything can happen," said Mancini, in one of his more useful observations yesterday. But there might be a tattoo for him at the end of it all. "I have another leg," he said a few months back. "If I win the Premier League with Manchester City, I might get one."