Whiff of change and sniff of flu dominate derby

MANCHESTER - The red and blue sides of Manchester shared a rare moment of agreement among the barbs on Tuesday with mega-rich City and trophy-rich United sensing a change in the significance of derby day.

Wednesday's match at Eastlands goes way beyond determining local bragging rights as the big-spending hosts feel, for the first time in years, they can stand shoulder to shoulder with their more decorated rivals as Premier League title contenders.

"The situation has changed," City manager Roberto Mancini told a news conference.

"I think they know that now we are a strong team. We have respect for United... but we can understand that we can be better than them always now."

While United manager Sir Alex Ferguson agreed there had been a shift, he did not give his opponents the satisfaction of acknowledging them as equals by pointing out there was only one north-west derby that settled questions of reputation.

"It's a different type of derby from the Liverpool game," said Ferguson, whose club are level with the Merseysiders with 18 league titles apiece.

"The Liverpool game is one of honour in terms of trophies won whereas now the derby game between ourselves and City is one of great intensity, built up by a media explosion over what City are doing and trying to achieve in their own way and the fact we are both in the same city.

"There is an incredible intensity in this derby game now which was not there shall we say 10-15 years ago."

Pubs around Manchester have been buzzing with excitement ahead of the game with City fans confident the tide has changed.

"For the first time in a long time City are not the underdogs in this match," said lifelong City fan Robert Watson.

City trail league leaders Chelsea by five points and can draw level on points with second-placed United with a victory.

They lost three times to their red rivals last term but the games were decided by late goals and City will want to prove this time they are not just 'noisy neighbours' as Ferguson once dubbed them.


City, whose last major silverware was the 1976 League Cup, have spent more than 300 million pounds assembling a top class squad but Ferguson said that did not mean they would emulate Chelsea in winning titles following a big cash injection.

"It's a different league now, it's a really competitive league," he said.

United go into the match somewhat depleted because of a flu virus that has worked its way round many players, leading Ferguson to say he had "no idea" who would play on Wednesday.

The more cynical City fans could take this with a big pinch of salt, remembering previous instances when Ferguson has said one thing before a match only for it to change on the day.

Before last season's Champions League quarter-final second leg against Bayern Munich, Ferguson said Wayne Rooney would definitely not be fit to play and yet he started the game.

Since Ferguson tends to deploy what other managers call his "mind games" before big matches or at important times in the season, City fans could also take any psyching out as a sign of an elevation of their club's status in his mind.

City will be without Mario Balotelli, who on Tuesday lost his appeal against a three-match suspension for a red card against West Bromwich Albion at the weekend, while fellow striker Emmanuel Adebayor is a doubt because of a calf injury.