Who are Manchester United’s principal rivals, Liverpool or Manchester City?
It’s a simple question that has delivered a complicated response ahead of Sunday’s match with the Merseysiders, a fixture that is historically the biggest of the season but is no longer considered as relevant or impactful as those with Roberto Mancini’s title rivals.
This subject has been queried since September 2008 when the Blues were plucked from obscurity by Sheikh Mansour and the Abu Dhabi Group, whose estimated £20billion fortune transformed the club from self-deprecating outsiders to genuine trophy contenders overnight.
City's stock has risen since. A 2011 FA Cup triumph famously brought down a Stretford End banner counting their years without a trophy, before last season's dramatic title win ended a 44-year wait for a first division crown - a feat no Reds supporter needs reminding of.
Additional factors have also fuelled the fire of this burgeoning battle, not least City's signing of former United striker Carlos Tevez and the now infamous ‘Welcome to Manchester’ poster, as well as several incendiary encounters.
As a result, the Manchester derby is now more a grand occasion of state than a football match, an event of national standing. It has its own space in the calendar, its own lexicon and a particularly tight stranglehold on the news agenda. Victory, quite simply, offers more than just three points and local bragging rights.
It is likely that United’s April 2013 date with City will be the biggest and most hyped match of this season, and quite rightly so, given that the Barclays Premier League title is again being keenly contested by two clubs that are separated by just under four miles. But taking away all emotion and desire for short-term supremacy; is that fixture bigger than those contested with historic rivals Liverpool, a club which has throughout recent history battled United for the title of pound-for-pound champion in English football? It’s a good question.