By accident more than design, Manchester City timed things rather excellently yesterday when they chose the eve of their biggest league derby in over 40 years to call Carlos Tevez to account.
The view within football was that the striker's disciplinary hearing would have been held 48 hours earlier, not to overshadow tomorrow's occasion, but this felt like City beginning to cast off Sir Alex Ferguson's cast-off once and for all.
It was a club standing on two feet, putting all that “Welcome to Manchester” baloney in the past, along with the old United obsessions. No better time to do it than the weekend they walk into Old Trafford as the league leaders.
In a build-up marked yesterday by some extraordinary managerial courtesies which took us a very long way from Paddy Crerand knocking out David Wagstaffe in the tunnel at Maine Road in 1963 and Nobby Stiles punching the dressing room wall in the same stadium, Micah Richards was the one most worth listening to when he spoke of the significance of also dispensing with that City bete noire — the “34 Years” banner.
“To be honest, it was more our fans who got worked up about that banner,” Richards said. “United now know, much as they won't say it, that we are a genuine threat. To get that banner taken down is quality. We have got the last laugh.”
Richards’ words reflected a Manchester City who arrive with identity, 27 goals to United's 25, and two points more at the top.
When Mancini said yesterday that his former chief executive Garry Cook had been right to suggest City could ultimately be as big as United — “I think this as well. I think that should be our target” — he framed the aspiration as something less parochial than a fight between two institutions separated by a five-mile stretch of the Greater Manchester road network.
“When you have Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, you work to be like one of them,” Mancini said. “This should be our target.”
The stakes are so high that it was difficult to discern how sincere either manager was amid their mutual appreciation. Mancini was a rookie player at Sampdoria when Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in 1986 and after a check with his translator about the enunciation of the number ‘69', he declared that “it must be difficult to get to his age and have the same strength and every day want to win.”
The Italian, who reaches his 100th game at the City helm tomorrow, located a deficit between his own side and that of the manager 23 years his senior. It is 43 days since Mancini declared United to be “two yards ahead” of his own side and yesterday he said this could only partially be revised.
“Now it's one yard,” he said. “United over City — it's one yard now because we've worked very well and reduced the gap.”
United remained the better club because of an amorphous quality which was located in that fabled psychological rigour Ferguson instills.
“United is United,” was how Mancini defined it. “It is like a team that every year wins something. I think when one team every year continues to win it is normal to be there [ahead of the rest]. United has one thing that we don't have yet: when they play badly they win the game. We are missing that.”
Mancini has watched games at Old Trafford that will tell him he should have hope for tomorrow.
“Norwich had I don't know how many chances. Chelsea [was the same],” he enthused - and with United by no means unbreachable, the temptation must be to attack them. He will probably will revert to defensive type but added: “If we leave Old Trafford with a draw that will be good but we do not go with that mentality.”