When Alex Ferguson uttered his immortal reply to the question put to him by a reporter, to wit “do you think Manchester United will ever go into a Manchester derby match as underdogs?” his reply was widely greeted with mirth and knowing nods of the head.
The old sage had spoken again and the club he had disparagingly named the noisy neighbours had been put firmly back in their place.
Ian Herbert in the Independent even went so far as to call his response “a perfect piece of theatre”, as the United manager exhibited his certainty for all to see.
The gushing did not stop there: "For fully 15 seconds he eyed his inquisitor, a glint in those narrow eyes, and you wondered whether that individual would be on the receiving end of the full force of his opinion. "What time is it?" he said, at last. "I think it is time for me to leave..... Not in my lifetime."
It was fair to say that Ferguson had by this time of his career large sections of the press easting out of the palm of his hand.
The year was 2009 and, nine short years later, it is clear for all to see which of the Manchester giants has swept enthusiastically to the forefront. City – one victory away from securing their third league title in seven years – will do just that if they defeat -- of all teams – Manchester United next weekend.
For United it is the nightmare scenario that was introduced as a possibility some weeks ago and has since then been inching towards reality as inescapably as a landslide making its way down a heavily drenched hillside.
City’s usurping of United’s top dog status is not all, however. There is another very realistic scenario that could heap even more humiliation on their neighbours: this game of the century, this utterly unique opportunity to grab the limelight even more forcibly whilst playing the local rivals is not even top of City’s list of priorities in this week of vital Champions League action.
Not only have City overtaken their neighbours and consolidated that position of superiority, they are now in a position to state without fear of being contradicted that two games against – of all people – Liverpool, are now more important than closing out the title against United.
Ferguson, you imagine, would not have been alone in finding it tough to imagine such a scenario.
Liverpool it was who – on the occasion of the afore-mentioned press conference – the United manager had quoted as his club’s fiercest rival. Now, the shoe appears to be on the other foot.
City, planning meticulously for the trip to Anfield in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal, may well decide that it is worth playing reserves and kids against United at the weekend to spare the legs of the likes of David Slva, Kevin de Bruyne and Fernandinho for the second leg against Liverpool a week hence.
“History” was the one word reason Ferguson gave for naming the Liverpool rivalry as the most relevant and indeed, on a European front, history also conjures some wonderful Anfield nights of raw passion and drama. From Monchengladbach through Benfica to St Etienne, Liverpool fans have witnessed some stunning nights of European drama down the years.
Now it is an equally memorable European tie v Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest that City would like to emulate, one of the few in the 70s and 80s that turned and hit Liverpool square in the chops.
It is nearly 30 years since the last of Liverpool’s league titles, however, and sporadic European success since then has also begun to fade into the memory. City, the first English side to be European and domestic winners in the same season (1970), represent what comes next as well as what has been.
In the infamous press conference alluded to at the beginning of this article, Mark Hughes – then in
charge of City – also had his say, once Ferguson's dominance of the podium was over. The Welshman, far from
looking back and citing historical importance, revelled in future hierarchies.
“For far too long the Top Six has been set in stone and we are trying to change
that” was the crux of his offering.
|The "Anfield cauldron" did not put off Forest in European competition|
Nobody can doubt that City have --in the space of nine short years -- certainly achieved that.
In breaking up the cartel that ruled the Premier League roost for more than a decade, City have opened up the top four race into a much more competitive affair that has greater ability to provide surprises. Liverpool, United and now Arsenal – a club seemingly permanently lodged in the top four places for two decades – are experiencing what it is like to be on the outside looking in.
Now it is City that possess the longest unbroken run of appearances in the Top Four (that 2009 season was the last time they finished lower than 4th). Since then Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and now Pep Guardiola have brought the ship home in 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 4th and 3rd. A third 1st place will be added this weekend if City can fend off United over 90 minutes in what promises to be a scorching Etihad atmosphere.
Before that, however, is the small matter of Liverpool away in the Champions League. Scorching atmosphere, we are promised, will be an understatement for what the teams will come out to at Anfield. You get the impression the City players will relish it and will also relish the opportunity to prove that the 4-3 reverse there in the league was an aberration in a season of silky smooth progress to the top.
After all, not in our lifetime have we seen a Premier League side do the things City have done this season.
This is a longer version of the article that first appeared on the pages of ESPN's website.