The perceived crises at the two Manchester clubs should give the EFL Cup tie at Old Trafford on Wednesday considerable edge. Even so, the game is unlikely to match the drama, intensity and noise of the previous League Cup meetings between the sides. All four, from 1969 to 2010, have gone into Manchester derby folklore.
The first, a semi-final played in December 1969, was a meeting of the holy trinities: Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee for City, George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law for United. Five of the six scored in the two-leg tie and the other, Best, was heavily involved throughout. Both teams were 18 months past their triumphant peak, when City won the league and United the European Cup, but delved into the muscle memory bank to produce a pair of end-to-end epics.
City won the first leg 2-1 at Maine Road, with Lee earning and scoring a late penalty. Even members of the clergy were captivated. "One esteemed member of the cloth, who usually does not express his feelings in such worldly fashion, observed that it was 'a helluva game'," wrote Eric Todd in his Guardian report. "Nobody would argue with the revered gentleman's assessment."
A few, all wearing red shirts, argued with the penalty decision. Best, who was also aggrieved at being booked, knocked the ball out of the referee Jack Taylor’s hands after the final whistle. The gesture was either playful or petulant, depending on whose story you believe. Taylor included it in his report and Best was banned for four weeks. He was so affronted by the punishment that, when he returned against Northampton in the FA Cup, he scored six in an 8-2 win.
Best was not banned until a couple of weeks after the second leg at Old Trafford. United's 2-1 lead meant it was 3-3 on aggregate when, with eight minutes to go, City were awarded an indirect free-kick just outside the area. Lee took a shot at goal anyway, possibly hoping for a deflection, and the goalkeeper Alex Stepney palmed it out for Summerbee to score the decisive goal. It was only when he later saw the highlights of the match on TV that Stepney realised it was an indirect free-kick, and he should have let Lee's shot go straight into the net. City beat West Bromwich Albion 2-1 in the final.
The derbies around that time were dominated by City – particularly at Old Trafford, where they won six out of seven league matches between 1968 and 1974. The last of those was the famous match in which they symbolically – if not actually – relegated United, the Lawman beating up the wrong guys and all that. Almost six months later, City returned to Old Trafford in the League Cup as huge favourites. United were going well in the Second Division, which they would win comfortably, and Old Trafford bristled with the unique defiance that is evident when a superpower are underdogs on their own ground.
Arthur Albiston, 17, made a famous debut at left-back and United won 1-0 through a disputed penalty from Gerry Daly, the underweight midfielder whose spot-kick record at United is better than those of Eric Cantona and Ruud van Nistelrooy. In The Red Army Years, Richard Kurt's majestic book about United in the 1970s, one United supporter says the noise compared with famous wins over Ajax in 1976 and Barcelona in 1984 "as the greatest, most unbelievably exciting atmosphere I've ever seen Old Trafford generate".
City fans get just as misty-eyed about the rematch a year later, for more than one reason. They trounced Tommy Docherty's young side 4-0, with Dennis Tueart scoring the first goal after 35 seconds and Asa Hartford at the centre of some coruscating football. This paper said it was their "best performance for years". Yet the match is most remembered for the injury that effectively ended the career of the elegant Bell, one of the best and most popular players City have ever had, when his studs got stuck in the turf as he was tackled by Martin Buchan.
“It felt like my leg had been screwed into the ground,” said Bell in his autobiography, Reluctant Hero. “My knee bent backwards, bursting blood vessels in the bottom of my thigh and in the top of my calf. All the ligaments in my knee were torn. Within seconds the knee was just a bag of blood.”
Buchan has been demonised by City fans ever since but most neutrals felt he did little wrong. “I don’t blame Martin Buchan for the injury,” Bell said. “There were players in the game who set out to kick and injure you but I don’t think Martin was that type.”
As in 1969-70, City went on to win the League Cup after beating United. It was their last trophy until the Abu Dhabi United Group takeover in 2008. A year later, after a deranged 4-3 win at Old Trafford, a triumphant Sir Alex Ferguson said City were "noisy neighbours". United wanted to keep them quiet for as long as possible, and they just about did so in an immense semi-final later that season. City won the home leg 2-1, with Carlos Tevez scoring two goals against his old club and introducing a new word to the football lexicon: after a touchline dispute with the substitute Gary Neville, he called Neville a "socksucker" in a radio interview.
Tevez scored again at Old Trafford with a brilliant flick, and the score was 3-3 on aggregate when Wayne Rooney headed the winner in the second minute of stoppage time. Rooney was in the form of his life, at the start of a spell of 18 goals in 13 games before injury at Bayern Munich set his career on a different path. His goal was one of three injury-time winners for United against City that season, a spectacular way to delay the inevitable change in Manchester's balance of power.
City beat United a year later in the FA Cup semi-final, en route to their first trophy since 1976. That was one of the most significant matches in Manchester football history; but when it comes to knockout competitions, it is the League Cup that has provided most of the classics.