In more than two decades at Old Trafford Alex Ferguson has been accustomed to looking upon Manchester City with varying degrees of bemusement, derision and pity.
Distaste has been a recent addition, since those "noisy neighbours" gained the hauteur of lottery winners. So it must have been through gritted teeth yesterday that he found himself acknowledging the threat that they suddenly pose to Manchester United.
On the face of it, the only prize at stake at the City of Manchester Stadium this evening -- and at the semi-final second leg at Old Trafford a week tomorrow -- is a place in the final of the Carling Cup, a competition that has never featured high on Ferguson's list of priorities.
But their eagerly awaited meeting, delayed by the snow a fortnight ago, has come to signify far more in the Manchester power struggle -- a class war between City's newly energised nouveau riche and the debt-addled aristocrats of Old Trafford.
Ferguson did not mind the City of old: harmless, ineptly run, yo-yoing up and down the divisions with friendly faces such as Howard Kendall and Joe Royle in the dugout. He was bemused -- and, it is said, a little amused -- by their false dawn under the crass ownership of Thaksin Shinawatra and the management of Sven-Goran Eriksson.
But this new City, a club bankrolled from Abu Dhabi, run in Manchester by blue-sky thinkers, coached by Roberto Mancini and embodied on the pitch by Carlos Tevez, the man who walked out on United, is a different proposition. In the summer City spent £55,000 on a poster, next to the Arndale Centre, which displayed Tevez, arms outstretched, above the slogan 'Welcome to Manchester'.
It was conceived in part to wind up United's supporters but with the hope that it would also irk Ferguson and create awareness, globally as well as locally, that an old rivalry was brewing in Manchester.
To say that it paid off is an understatement. Within 24 hours it was a news phenomenon, with Ferguson taking the bait: "poor stuff"; "it's a go at us"; "small club, small mentality".
He even vented his fury at Vicky Kloss, City's director of communications, within seconds of his team's dramatic injury-time victory in the Manchester derby two months later. City's supporters revelled in his anger.Such harmless fun was followed last month by a less trivial development -- the poorly handled sacking of Mark Hughes, a former United player, and his replacement by Mancini.
A few days later Ferguson described the manner of Hughes's sacking as "unacceptable -- I don't know how you can do something like that".
He continued his tirade against City in his column in United's match programme, usually a relatively sanitised production, before the FA Cup tie against Leeds United on January 3. Ferguson would like nothing more than to see the great City project end in embarrassing failure, as he implied it would at the time of Sheikh Mansour's takeover in September 2008.
But, having previously mocked their lofty aspirations, Ferguson found himself whistling a rather more anxious-sounding tune yesterday.
"You have to recognise they are a competitor now," Ferguson said. "They are making a much better fist of their league programme this year than they have in the past. We've had to wait a long time for it to be like that."
It was a brief remark, uttered through another sanitised outlet, United's official website, which then found itself running the unexpected headline of 'Boss: Blues are the real deal'.
This being Ferguson, one had to wonder whether there might be some kind of agenda at work, a case of exchanging pleasantries with the neighbours before humiliating them in their own backyard. It was certainly a departure from his previous stance, when he derided their ambitions of breaking into the Premier League's top four, from which they are separated at present only on goal difference.
Now Ferguson finds himself in an awkward position, with City in their first semi-final in a leading cup competition since 1981.
In normal circumstances he would field a largely youthful team in a Carling Cup semi-final, as he did against Derby County last season.
But he knows as well as anyone the momentum a first trophy can generate and, naturally, he does not want to smooth City's passage to Wembley, where they would face Aston Villa or Blackburn Rovers.
"I have to think about getting a mix in terms of the programme we have got and also the fact I've given young players a game in the past," Ferguson said. "I will have a strongish team, but there will be some young players."
As the word 'strongish' might imply, those young players will certainly include Wayne Rooney, who has started only five Carling Cup matches in as many years with United.
The word 'strongish' also suggests that it will be the strongest team available to Ferguson, save for the likely inclusions of Tomasz Kuszczak in goal and Darron Gibson in midfield.
Jonny Evans, the young Northern Ireland defender, will be there too, but out of necessity, with Rio Ferdinand not yet ready for a return to competitive action.
Make no mistake: a Carling Cup semi-final has never meant more to Ferguson.
© The Times, London