Manchester's war of wills and words is under way. Sir Alex Ferguson has signalled, not unreasonably, that after a summer of spending which may top £130 million, his club's city rivals must finish the season in the top four.
"You have to put City bang in the picture," he said. "They have got to be in the top four next year; they have to be. When Chelsea made their signings the impact they had was to win the League. When [Roman] Abram-ovich came they won the League, and for City to spend that kind of money they have to be in the top four."
That's a story for another day – the two meet at Eastlands on 10 November – and however quickly City feel they can barge their way through and further alter the old four-team hegemony which Ferguson believes has been "squashed", it is the original big spenders, title-holders and FA Cup holders Chelsea, and the tussle with Carlo Ancelotti starting with this afternoon's Community Shield at Wembley, which absorbs him most.
"He is not such an emotional guy like a lot of Italians," Ferguson observed of Ancelotti after a first season of combat. "He doesn't get upset about the odd result against them. He is very calm."
This afternoon is the chance to offer match time for those recovering in different degrees from injury and – worse still – the World Cup, rather than strike an early psychological blow against the side Ferguson sees as title favourites. Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney will each get 45 minutes.
The pitch, which Ferguson believes contributed to the hamstring injury which put Owen out of the game for four months after the Carling Cup final, still worries him, despite the Football Association laying an Emirates-style Desso pitch which blends grass with artificial fibres to make it more hard-wearing. "Someone has said they have relaid it and put more fibre in it or whatever it is," he said. "I would have thought that when you look at your pitch, and with the problems they have had, you would look at the foundation. If they have only relaid the top then they will still have problems; the foundations are the most important thing and I don't know what the foundation is."
But nothing can take his mind too far from the positives on the day it all starts again in earnest. There have been 24 of these moments for him at United but the light never dims.
Owen's return – sooner than expected – and his excellent goal in Dublin contribute to a sense that people have forgotten his pedigree. "We are certainly not forgetting," Ferguson said. And then there is the man who wears the name Chicarito on his back, though the chances of Ferguson using that terminology about Javier Hernandez are about as remote as him stating that Roberto Mancini should be given time to bed in. Hernandez's calm finish in Dublin, virtually no drawback as he converted with his first touch – provided another thrill of anticipation.
"He is going to do all right, that boy," Ferguson said. "He has a good brain, great feet and he is quick and reminds me of [Ole Gunnar] Solskjaer; he has a chance. There have not been many who play outside Mexico but that is because they are well paid.
"It is a very wealthy league. It's [also] a tough league – they get big crowds in Mexico – and [that's why] I've never had any doubts about Mexican players. They are mentally and physically tough. So he has come from a good breeding ground in terms of players who can adapt."
The surprise was the stealth with which United went about that piece of pre-World Cup business. "We just did remarkably well that no one found out about it," Ferguson agreed. "That was brilliant and the [Chivas] president proved to be a man of real substance. We asked them to keep it quiet and they kept it quiet. Nobody knew; not a soul, we had a lawyer and chief scout down there for three weeks to get the deal done and that was the right thing to do."
After a desperately poor World Cup as the United manager sees it – "I don't see it as a glamour tournament any longer because there is too much expectation and hype about it," he said – he is also surveying the threats ahead, Everton being a name he keeps conjuring with, his judgement influenced by dint of Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill and Phil Jagielka being available this season when they missed large tracts of the last one.
Plus Mancini's City, of course. So no niggling sense, then, that this could be a time in his life to travel and read? "There'll be plenty of time for that," he declared, and bustled away across the windswept training ground.Reuse content