United triumph but City take heart
At Old Trafford
Sir Alex Ferguson paid Manchester City the biggest of back-handed compliments by claiming the Carling Cup semi-final derby could be one of the great Old Trafford occasions, fit to rank alongside meetings with giants such as Inter Milan, Barcelona and Juventus.
It was the clearest indication of the extent to which the so-called "noisy neighbours" have got up Manchester United and Ferguson's nose that he afforded such status and importance to a competition he never regards as a top priority.
The evidence was everywhere, from the combative call-to-arms in the match programme, the powerful United line-up and the obvious willingness to risk an extended ban for Rio Ferdinand on his Football Association charge to ensure his availablity to face City.
Ferguson got his glory night all right as Wayne Rooney inflicted fresh stoppage-time suffering on City at the conclusion of a thunderous encounter to send United to Wembley - putting the Eastlands upstarts in their place in the process. And it meant so much, something that should flatter City amid their heartbreak.
The notion of Ferguson mentioning the Carling Cup, the dear old derided Carling Cup, in the same breath as nights of conquest against Europe's elite would have been just cause to suggest the old master had mislaid the plot not so long ago.
Rooney celebrates after netting the winner for Manchester United
But the sub-plots surrounding this semi-final stacked up so high that victory here will have given Ferguson as much, if not more, pleasure than victory in the final against Aston Villa next month.
If Old Trafford's stadium announcer told City's 9,000 travelling fans that United are "the current holders of the Carling Cup" once before kick-off he told them a dozen times. Rarely has the tournament been spoken about with such pride and gusto in these parts.
City did too much talking after their first-leg win. Somewhere along the line, some people forgot there was a second leg - and stoking Manchester United's fires with some ill-advised verbals was not the smartest move.
Carlos Tevez's attack on Gary Neville may have played to the gallery but was counter-productive. Lost in translation? The best way to avoid being lost in translation is to remember silence is golden, especially when there is the huge possibility of your targets having the last word.
And then there is Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook. Accident-prone in close proximity to a microphone, he told supporters in a New York pub known as "The Mad Hatter" that it was "not if but when we are at Wembley, having beaten Man United yet again".
Roberto Mancini pinched a line from an Oasis classic before the game when he told City "Don't Look Back In Anger". He might have been tempted to ask Cook to sing a few lines of another Oasis number "My Big Mouth", especially when Darren Fletcher revealed his New York oratory got a big mention in the United dressing room before kick-off.
With all these factors in place, plus an increased police presence after trouble at the first leg, the stage was set for Old Trafford to play host to a night to remember. All football life, good and bad, was here from the blockbusting action on the pitch to the anti-Glazer protests off it and the disgraceful incident when Manchester City's Craig Bellamy was floored by a coin in the second half.
It is actually a tribute to City's progress that they now register so significantly on United's radar - but Ferguson, Manchester's great dictator, is in no mood to hand over his power base just yet.
And just in case anyone wondered just how much this meant to Ferguson and United, how desperately they wanted to claw back that 2-1 first-leg deficit, you only had to watch and listen to the sheer ecstasy that covered Old Trafford like a giant cloak when Rooney's decisive header hit the back of the as we entered the second minute of three minutes of stoppage time.
For all the faults of their outspoken build-up, City's players stated an eloquent case on the pitch for at least the first 50 minutes as they survived in comfort and created the better chances.
Mancini had his side bursting with discipline and energy, containing United and keeping Rooney quiet - at least as quiet as any team can keep him these days. They were the equal of the home side in the first half.
Manchester United may be a club with divisions as debate rages around the current owners, but it was the unity of purpose and resolve on the pitch that enabled them to see off this formidable City challenge.
One of United's old reliables, Paul Scholes, looked reinvigorated by the sight of City and pulled a finish from the memory bank to put his team ahead on the night. When Michael Carrick added a second, the game looked up.
We should have know better given this fixture's storylining. And we should have known it would be the contentious figure of Tevez who would threaten a twist with a stunning flick, literally taken off Ferdinand's forehead and flashed past Edwin van der Sar.
Rooney let City off the hook once with a bad miss, but, when they fatally knocked off at that late corner, he gave them no second chances. United's revenge was sweet and taken with relish.
Ferguson swamped Rooney in superlatives after the game. It made the idea that United would actually ponder a sale to Real Madrid even more laughable - as if the Glazers could contemplate such a deal on a night when the green and gold protest scarves were out in astonishing numbers.
He also gave a performance that suggested Jorge Valdano, the great old mouthpiece of Real Madrid, may be a touch removed from the realities of the modern game when he claims Rooney might struggle in Spain. This is a player who would excel anywhere, any time, at any club.
A banner at Old Trafford labelled Rooney "The White Pele" - and the original would not have been uneasy at the comparison on recent evidence. Rooney may just remember that this was a tag applied to Colin Harvey, his great Everton mentor who brilliantly shaped his formative years, when he played at Goodison Park.
Mancini cut a subdued figure after the game, regretting the loss of attention at that fateful 92nd-minute corner that damaged City so badly, but he can draw comfort from the fact United now take them so seriously. Their days of natural deference are over.
United, however, still hold sway in this city. Empires carefully assembled over more than 20 years are not dismantled in months with a few waves of the game's mightiest chequebook.
Manchester City are shaping up as a major force but this defeat says world domination will have to wait - a message written in every fibre of Ferguson's body as he strode down the tunnel in triumph at the conclusion of a magnificent evening.
The final insult for City's devastated supporters was to have to listen to United's Wembley rendition of "Que Sera, Sera" (Whatever Will Be Will Be) at deafening volume as their rivals cavorted in unabashed joy. Whatever will be will be indeed - it was familiar conclusion and the finale of their worst nightmares.