London: Manchester City have already won one major battle ahead of Monday's Premier League derby - convincing Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson that they are a force to be taken seriously.
Ferguson initially dismissed City as "noisy neighbours" following a 2008 takeover by Abu Dhabi investors, but now says that the rivalry is becoming as important as that with their traditional enemy Liverpool.
"If we're going to be contesting with them for the league titles regularly — and I think we will be — it will become almost as important as the Liverpool derbies," Ferguson said. "Maybe not in terms of the emotions; the Liverpool-United games are emotional. But certainly in terms of importance this supersedes Liverpool at the moment because City are our direct opponents."
"Manchester City are up against us to win titles. We have to focus on the teams who can affect our progress in terms of winning the league."
United overtook Liverpool as England's most successful club with last year's record 19th league title.
City would have to win the Premier League every season until 2029 to relieve their local rivals of that status, but they can take a huge step forward with the victory that would draw them level on points with United at the top of the Premier League.
But City manager Roberto Mancini has remained calm, pointing out that he is used to these types of situations, even if City aren't. While Mancini won three league titles as manager of Inter Milan and another two as a player, City have not been English champion since 1968.
"I've experienced other crucial matches, like the last match of the Serie A season in 2007-08 when I was Inter coach," Mancini told France Football magazine. "At half-time, Roma were champions, but in the end we won the Scudetto by scoring twice in the second half away to Parma, who were fighting to stay up."
"But yes, this match is very important. City have been waiting for a match like this since 1968."
If they win, City's superior goal difference would make them firm favourites for the title.
That is an entirely plausible outcome given that City have already won 6-1 at Old Trafford this season, handing Ferguson his worst defeat in 26 years at United. City also knocked United out of the FA Cup semi-finals last season on their way to ending a 35-year streak without a trophy.
"We have to get used to playing City in important games," Ferguson said. "They're not going away. The financial support they have means we'll meet them in a lot of big games. Cup finals, semi-finals: we've already done that. They're there."
United beat City 3-2 in the season-opening Community Shield at Wembley and won at the Etihad Stadium by the same score in January's FA Cup third round.
"Playing often against United has helped us to improve. It has helped us to learn," Mancini said. "We've got closer to them but they are still better than us. They have more experience and this team spirit that we are in the process of building."
Both teams have thrown away the chance to take a decisive grip on the title race, most recently when United lost 1-0 to Wigan and then drew 4-4 with Everton after leading 4-2.
City midfielder Gareth Barry said United's spell as leaders and favourites had lifted the pressure from his team.
"There's probably been less pressure on us in the last few games," Barry said. "When the game is that big, the pressure is on both sets of players and it's probably going to be down to who handles that best. People are speaking of this as maybe being the biggest game in Premier League history and on a personal level, it's a massive game for me to be playing in."
Ferguson must decide whether to change the side that dropped points against Everton, with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling both available to replace fullback Rafael da Silva. Ryan Giggs, Tom Cleverley and Park Ji-sung could also come in to strengthen midfield.
"I have to trust my players. We have enough experience, enough pace and enough good footballers with determination. We’ll be alright in that respect. A game of this nature can be decided by anything – and you only hope it isn’t decided by a bad decision," said Ferguson.
"If City win, they would probably go on to win it [the title] from there. Even though they’ve got to go to Newcastle, I think they would have a great chance. If we won, we’d be strong favourites. Even with a draw we’d be favourites. No doubt about that. Two games to go, one at home and one away, we’d have to be happy with that," the United manager told Sunday Mirror. "One thing, though, we won’t be going to City just looking to make sure we don’t lose."