MANCHESTER // There are times in Manchester United's recent history when the defining games in their season have been against the continental giants, from Bayern Munich and Barcelona to AC Milan and Real Madrid. Local rivalries were so one-sided that victory could be taken for granted. No longer. If Tuesday's Carling Cup semi-final exposed one thing - and given United only trail 2-1 with a second leg at Old Trafford to come, it has not revealed the eventual winner - it is that the battle for supremacy in their own backyard is a close contest.
For United's club figureheads, that is an especially painful realisation. Both endured a chastening evening. Sir Alex Ferguson is rarely proved wrong, and still less likely to admit to erring, but he spent much of the match listening to the gloating taunts of "Fergie, sign him up," from the City fans while Carlos Tevez, discarded by United and recruited by City, scored twice. Meanwhile, Gary Neville contrived to get into trouble without taking the field.
Neville's determination to play the part of the United fan on the pitch (or, in this case, the bench) has led him to one or two unwise actions in the past. Now the club captain is the subject of an FA investigation for a one-fingered gesture towards a celebrating Tevez. In many respects, it was not a night to savour for the 34-year-old. His place in the pecking order was confirmed when Rafael da Silva was preferred at right-back. The prospect of a slowing Neville floundering in a sprint against the electric Craig Bellamy presumably deterred Ferguson from selecting the veteran; as it was Rafael resorted to tugging back the Welshman for the contentious penalty Tevez converted.
"It was a turning point. If we'd have gone in 1-0 up it might have been a different story," said Ryan Giggs, who deputised as captain, scoring United's opener, and displayed rather more decorum than Neville. "Last season we comprehensively beat Derby in the second leg of the semi so hopefully we can do that again. It's going to be tough, City are a good team. But there were enough signs, especially in the last half-hour, to suggest we're good enough to beat them."
There were, but that is only to be expected. Sometimes a teamsheet is of passing interest, valued only by collectors. On other occasions, it is a statement of intent. This was one such: Ferguson fielded his strongest possible 11. Strength was apparent. A buccaneering Rooney displayed that he can take on an opposing defence single-handed. Antonio Valencia proved he has the pace the worry Javier Garrido, Giggs the elusive movement to enable him to emerge unchecked in the area.
Yet they lost. And that is far more damaging than a defeat for comparatively untried teams Ferguson habitually fields in the Carling Cup. Among his chosen 11, fallibilities were evident. Wes Brown and Jonny Evans, who both appear to prefer life as the junior partner in a central defensive duo, were harassed by a marauding Tevez. Rafael's forte remains attacking, as Bellamy was quick to realise. Edwin van der Sar, appearing in the competition for the first time in four years, suffered in comparison with Shay Given.
All is far from lost. United may still be favourites to progress; Ferguson may be able to recall some of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Dimitar Berbatov for the second leg. But that match is four days before United visit Arsenal. Either could define United's campaign: for such stalwarts as Ferguson and Neville, the worst-case scenario is that a setback against City would. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org