Saturday 19 September ~
Emmanuel Adebayor's three match ban will have been welcomed by Arsenal supporters this week. The satisfaction will have been just as tangible for their counterparts at Old Trafford. The banning of City's most likely goalscorer from Sunday's derby will be a relief to United fans, who, if they are anything like their manager, will be very concerned by the developments at Eastlands. Ferguson enjoys a good old verbal tussle with anyone he deems appropriately threatening.
Now that Kevin Keegan, Arsène Wenger and Rafa Benitez have been left in his wake, his patronising praise and irascible ire will be directed closer to home. Ferguson saves his mind games for adversaries he deems worthy of his attention. Of all the Premier League managers to challenge for the title in the past 20 years, only Jose Mourinho has been crafty and charming enough to dodge Ferguson's canny chat. By attracting his former manager's attention, Mark Hughes and his team have been welcomed to the highest echelon of English football by its current lord and chief.
More than anything Ferguson says, the sheer volume of references he has made to City in the past few months illustrates how serious a rival they have become. The Manchester derby is now a game of small margins, worthy of wheeling out the trusty old mind games. Ferguson's comments have all been aimed to diminish City. Examples include: they are "a small club with a small mentality", that United's derby will always be the game with Liverpool, not City and he doesn't care if Carlos Tevez plays. The United manager has also deemed City naughty, cocky and arrogant, and what they are doing doesn't bother him as he is "only concerned by whoever is going to win the league".
And to think that Ferguson accused City of being obsessed by his club a few months ago: "All they can talk about is Manchester United; they can't get away from it." Ironically, the build-up to the derby has been littered with Ferguson's veiled swipes at City but Mark Hughes has remained remarkably quiet.
The problem for Ferguson is that he enters the derby under a weighty burden of expectation. United are the champions, vulnerable to their plucky challengers. Both clubs know the game could define their season, but City have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Their start to the season has been flawless, but they are still a club in the ascendancy who are bedding in new players. Their squad is vast, capable and in good form, but against United they remain the underdogs, or "the small club" as Ferguson put it. City want a top-four spot, and while three points against United would help, overcoming their local rivals is not the immediate objective.
In an attempt to re-calibrate the perception of the derby and deflect the pressure from his players, Ferguson claimed yesterday that City need to win the League to justify their expensive investments. City have spent a lot of money, something Ferguson would know all about, but their challenge this season is to get under the skin of the big four. If their effect on Sir Alex Ferguson is anything to go by, they are on their way.