After successive defeats to Blackburn and Newcastle, Ferguson is again on the back foot. Three points adrift of City in the Premier League title race, United head to the Etihad Stadium tomorrow looking to avoid suffering a third loss on the trot for the first time since 2001. He does so with a squad badly depleted by injury and convinced the players he could bring in to bolster it are not of the right quality to enhance United long-term.
Yet, despite the pessimism, Ferguson also knows his players carry a history of fighting successfully against the odds. More importantly, the Scot is aware his opponents know it too.
“Manchester City have a strong, experienced squad,” said Ferguson. “It is not unexpected where they are at the moment. But they also know we are right behind them.”
It leaves Ferguson convinced only Tottenham could gatecrash the Manchester duopoly in the Premier League, the United manager admitting his own side have scrapped exceptionally hard to maintain an interest.
“In some respects, we can say well done to still be there,” he said. “And we are still there. A lot is going to happen between now and the end of the season but I can’t see anyone outside the three top teams winning the league. Arsenal and Chelsea need all three teams to collapse and I don’t think that will happen.”
Yet those words merely heighten the feeling amongst United fans that their club could just do with one or two more players during the current transfer window to make the difference between winning trophies and ending up as also-rans.
Lampard’s name has now emerged and while it would be a more obvious move if Ferguson tried to talk Paul Scholes out of retirement for the remainder of the campaign, it was interesting that, in a defence of his recruitment policy, the United manager did not reject the theory of signing Chelsea’s long-serving midfielder, just the notion of Andre Villas-Boas being willing to do a deal.
“You are not going to tell me Chelsea would sell Frank Lampard to Manchester United in January. Do you really believe that?” said Ferguson. “There is no foundation to that. Chelsea are like us. They want to do something. The second half of the season is going to be important to them. If they want to try and win the league they will need to have all their best players.”
With Chris Smalling still ruled out due to a nasty bout of tonsillitis, Ferguson will rely on the players who failed at Newcastle on Wednesday to re-establish credibility after the 6-1 humiliation when they last faced City, at Old Trafford in October. Not that Ferguson wanted to discuss that miserable day.
“I won’t be mentioning it,” he said. “We have enough experienced players in the squad to cope with a really difficult tie. I always say I would take anyone in a home draw. The advantage is with Manchester City in that respect. But it is a cup tie. It is a local derby and anything can happen in these games.”
City will be putting their first piece of silverware on the line tomorrow with manager Roberto Mancini insisting it provided the impetus for this season’s assault on the Premier League title. It has been an amazing season for the Blues so far, capped by that staggering 6-1 win..
They reached the end of the festive programme three points clear of United and well placed to end the season as champions for the first time since 1968. However, as Ferguson brings his players to the blue half of a divided city for an eagerly-anticipated tie, Mancini acknowledges what a boost lifting the trophy last season gave everyone at the Etihad Stadium.
United were accounted for in a Wembley semi-final before City returned to what is dubbed the ‘Venue of Legends’ by the marketing gurus to defeat Stoke and end a trophy drought that extended to 35 years.
“It was really important for the club,” said Mancini. “When you build a new team you have to start to win very quickly. If you get one cup, in that moment you can understand if you work hard and win the FA Cup, you can win the championship.”
Unfortunately for Mancini, the inspiration behind those wins against United and Stoke is not available this weekend.
Yaya Toure has been refused permission to delay his departure for African Nations Cup duty with the Ivory Coast, so will be heading out to Abu Dhabi with his international team-mates as his club colleagues prepare to do battle. It makes the controversial dismissal of Gareth Barry against Liverpool on Tuesday all the more significant, although if there is a consolation for Mancini, it comes from the fact no league points will be at stake this weekend.