"A trophy is a trophy," said Sir Alex Ferguson. But that was during his wilderness years, in 2006, when Manchester United were grateful for any silverware and when beating Wigan in the Carling Cup final was presented as a triumph. It was when Ferguson was desperate for validation amid growing, though ultimately wildly incorrect, suspicions he was in decline.
Two years later, when Ferguson had conquered Europe again, Carling Cup defeats to Southend and Coventry could be put into perspective. Some trophies were worth rather more than others. And now, once again, England's second and often secondary cup competition has acquired an importance at Old Trafford again. Not so much because United are the defending champions, although they are, but because of the opportunity to eliminate Manchester City. There is a banner at the Stretford End at Old Trafford that simply says: "34 years". It does not elaborate; for United fans, it does not need to. Manchester City's last meaningful silverware came in 1976. Particularly since City started outspending United, Ferguson appears especially keen to ensure it becomes 35 years.
Long-term students of his psychology have a theory, based on an intense competitiveness that has not diminished. It is not enough to win: it matters who else prospers if United do not. There is no personal animosity with Carlo Ancelotti, and, given the entente cordiale with Arsene Wenger, he is less concerned about Chelsea and Arsenal capturing a trophy providing his bitter rivals Liverpool and Manchester City do not.
With the winners of the all-Mancunian semi-final likely to be overwhelming favourites in a final against either Aston Villa or Blackburn, this is Ferguson's chance to ensure City cannot celebrate. Weakened teams are his default selection in this competition, but the regulars will be brought in. "What was already a challenging derby is revved up by the thought of a trip to Wembley," Ferguson said. The game is given added spice by the change at the helm at City.
There is a sense that Ferguson feels personally wronged by the dismissal of Mark Hughes, though he had been sniping at his former striker since his appointment at Eastlands. Now Roberto Mancini is the 14th City manager to face him and Ferguson, who is often fuelled by injustice, real or imagined, has an opportunity to avenge Hughes's sacking. The Italian's task is rendered harder by events in the FA Cup. The 1-0 defeat to Leeds means the Carling Cup goes up a place in United's priorities. Moreover, the failings of the fringe players suggest the regulars will be used.
Ryan Giggs has been kept in reserve in the last two league games but could become United's fourth left winger in as many matches . While the veteran can prove a reassuring sight, Darren Fletcher's return after a ban may be more significant. While United have four defeats in their last 13 games, the Scot has lost just four of his last 64 club matches. Upsets are rare when he plays. He scored twice in September's derby, won 4-3 by United in the 96th minute courtesy of the stand-out contribution Michael Owen has made in his time at Old Trafford. "This is the moment for revenge," said Carlos Tevez, Owen's predecessor on the United bench. "If we get a victory over United, it will be sensational."
He outlined the importance for both clubs: "It's a semi-final, a derby and there's a bitter rivalry between the two clubs." And, besides another trophy, there is added incentive for Ferguson in victory: City's wait would be extended. @Email:email@example.com