Published 19/01/2010 | 05:00
So what is really at stake when Manchester City and Manchester United lock horns in the Carling Cup semi-final first-leg at Eastlands tonight?
A trip to Wembley for the winners, a shot at silverware, local bragging rights? Or is it bigger than that?
Are we about to witness a seminal moment in the story of Mancunian, and more broadly, English football?
The balance of power in Manchester has been stuck rigidly in the red half of the city for almost half a century, but City's unrivalled wealth and United's colossal debt are threatening to spark a seismic shift that could nudge the pendulum towards Eastlands.
City are on the rise and United, without Cristiano Ronaldo and with a black hole in their finances, appear to be on the decline. But can City really close the gap?
Less than five years ago, Manchester United plc was the envy of the sporting world. Huge turnover, zero debt and with a product that ensured sold-out signs at Old Trafford for years to come.
Fast forward to 2010 and a crippling debt of £699m, which is rising by the day, is accompanied by a team on the pitch that is in desperate need of investment. And for the first time in recent memory, almost 4,000 tickets remain unsold for a Premier League fixture, with gaps in the stands likely for the visit of Hull City this weekend.
City, in contrast, have emerged as the world's richest club with the backing of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan. Where United have debt, City have a cash mountain.
The contrasting fortunes of the two clubs echoes the narrative of the 1983 film 'Trading Places', in which rich guy and poor guy are plunged into each other's worlds. 'Trading Places' is becoming the reality in Manchester.
For all of Roberto Mancini's success in Italy, where he won three titles with Inter and domestic cups with Inter, Lazio and Fiorentina, his record bears no comparison to Alex Ferguson's.
Ferguson has seen off 13 City managers since arriving at Old Trafford in November 1986. In that time, he has delivered 33 trophies. When United's financial figures were released last week, their biggest asset -- Ferguson -- did not appear on the balance sheet.
While the 68 year-old remains at the helm, United cannot be discounted, regardless of their finances. Ferguson has built and rebuilt at Old Trafford on numerous occasions and his track-record earns him the right to do it again.
Mancini has shown promise, but four wins in four routine opening games are no gauge of his credentials. To achieve greatness, he has to see Ferguson off. If he manages that, Mancini will have a job for life.
Despite Mark Hughes' £200m outlay on new players prior to his dismissal last month, recent injuries have highlighted weaknesses in City's squad.
Attacking-wise, they arguably possess the most potent group of strikers in the Premier League, but Mancini's team lacks genuine class in midfield, and defensive problems have been an issue all season.
United are a pale shadow of the team that reached the Champions League final last season. Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez have not been adequately replaced and Ferguson has yet to find successors for the ageing Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Edwin van der Sar and Gary Neville.
Old Trafford still has the edge in this section, however, with City unable to match the talents of Wayne Rooney, Darren Fletcher and Patrice Evra.
Even Mancini conceded last week that United are an "immortal" football club.
They may be peering into a bleak financial future, but United's name and rich history are the two priceless commodities that cannot be sold to the highest bidder.
When City visited Abu Dhabi, the home of Sheikh Mansour, last November, it was United red rather than City blue that caught the eye in the sports stores.
Only Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona can claim to rival United's global following and that is the challenge facing City.
They have the money and the ambition, but their history is consigned to black-and-white photographs.
United's history may ultimately prove to be their salvation should the financial picture become even darker under the Glazers. City's history, of 34 years without a trophy, is a burden that they must shed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)