MANCHESTER // Welcome to Manchester. Is it a polite invitation or an incendiary gesture? Whichever, the billboard poster, replete with the image of Carlos Tevez in a Manchester City shirt and prominently displayed in the city centre, offended Sir Alex Ferguson. "A small club with a small-club mentality," he said of Manchester's traditional second force. But that unwanted status, and much else, is up for grabs this afternoon.
This is where Manchester meets Manchester, United hosting a City side that is likely to be without the injured Tevez. Red against Blue, old money against new, Ferguson against Mark Hughes, the battering ram in the forward line of his first great team. Tevez went direct from Old Trafford to Eastlands while the Welshman took a roundabout route, but their distinguished past is irrelevant in the eyes of the United support and their manager today.
This is Manchester, Cottonopolis, Ewan MacColl's Dirty Old Town and home to two gleaming stadia. This is a city that was integral to the start of the Industrial Revolution; more than 200 years on, it is at the forefront of footballing change. This is a local derby with global consequences. It is the United States versus the United Arab Emirates. It is the first time in four decades that City can approach United as equals at a time when both are prospering.
Not since Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison were in harness have City consistently challenged United at the division's summit. City have the optimism, the aspiration and the resources, United the pedigree and prestige continued success offers. They have a record of overshadowing their neighbours in cruelly brilliant fashion. In 1968, when Mercer and Allison masterminded City's second and last title, United won the European Cup. In 1999, when City were promoted in one of the most exhilarating games Wembley has ever staged, United won the Champions League in still more dramatic fashion. In 2008, when Sven-Goran Eriksson's side did a derby double, United conquered Europe for a third time.
Now it is, when City have embarked upon a spending spree that is almost unprecedented, when United have sold their prize asset and when a closer contest between the neighbours should be forecast. Last season, United succeeded in outlining the scale of City's task if they wish to become a recognised force. The reunion poses questions: minus the sold Cristiano Ronaldo, do United still retain that aura? Minus all bar Craig Bellamy of their expensive strike force, do City possess the potency and power in attack to effect a change in the balance of power?
Yet Emmanuel Adebayor's suspension and an extensive injury list, including Robinho, Roque Santa Cruz and Tevez, who has not abandoned hope of an improbable return to face his former club, does raise one intriguing possibility. In the distant days of February 2008, when City's striking recruit was a man deemed surplus to requirements at Portsmouth, Benjani marked his debut with a derby winner. Now the Zimbabwean may be on the bench.
Robinho's absence may be advantageous. Under Eriksson, Martin Petrov raided with purpose and pace on the left flank. Now his recall is anticipated today. Yet while the attacking additions who initially sidelined him inevitably garnered attention, perhaps the most meaningful acquisitions were in defence and midfield. Hughes recruited on character as well as quality, seeking to construct a spine after a side proved too flimsy last season. For Kolo Toure, Joleon Lescott and Gareth Barry, in particular, this represents the sort of test they must pass to justify the investment. For each, a rampant Wayne Rooney presents the major threat as he veers between midfield and attack with a devastating importance.
For Ferguson, irritated by the upstarts on what he perceives as his patch, the derby assumed greater importance than the start of the Champions League in Ferguson's planning. Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea were unused in Tuesday's win in Besiktas, a sign that two who were once deemed odd-job men have been pencilled in today's game, along with Ryan Giggs. Paul Scholes is suspended while Jonny Evans may be required to deputise for Rio Ferdinand again in defence.
There are no billboards of him or of O'Shea and Fletcher, and that is how Ferguson prefers it. City, in his view, are "cocky". It is time to discover who will be crowing in Manchester today. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org United v City, KO 4.30pm, Showsports 1 & 2