Amid the sense of euphoria at Old Trafford on January 27, the prospect of a final against Aston Villa was very much a secondary consideration. Beating Manchester City was the objective, not winning the Carling Cup. Now, almost as an afterthought, they have the chance to secure silverware.
It was significant that Sir Alex Ferguson reasoned today's game would struggle to top the dramatic derby victory for emotion. It was hard to argue when Ron Atkinson, who managed both clubs, said today's final means more to Villa. The Midlanders have only won one trophy to Ferguson's 26 since Atkinson's Villa beat United in the 1994 League Cup final. Then the gold and green were the United shirts, worn to mark the club's centenary in the Football League; now they are the scarves, worn as a protest against the continued ownership of the Glazer family.
It provides a colourful backdrop, of dissent and discontent married with support for the side. Adopting the colours of Newton Heath, United's forebears, harks back to their past. History could be on the agenda today, too: Aston Villa were the competition's first winners, this is the 50th final and no club have retained the League Cup since Liverpool won it four successive years more than a quarter of a century ago. While Ferguson described the quest for a 19th league title as "in my soul", no such phrases are invoked to describe a competition that is a lesser priority. But being able to prosper when attention is focused elsewhere is a happy habit.
Circumstances dictate the attitude towards it. Ferguson was sufficiently confident to enter last year's final without Wayne Rooney and field four youthful players, two of whom were inexperienced in the extreme. In 2006, it felt a pyrrhic victory when United, in an otherwise underwhelming season, cavorted around Cardiff, though its importance later became apparent: it was the first honour of what proved to be Ferguson's third great team.
The status of the current side is still a subject for debate. In transition or decline, being dragged along by one player on the brink of greatness or sustaining a winning tradition through force of personality rather than talent, they have polarised opinion. Rooney has not. Ferguson's hint that he may omit his most in-form player, and the scorer of 19 goals in as many games, is an indication of the concerns about the striker's huge workload. Equally, it would amount to a sizeable gamble.
"The problem is he is desperate to play, he is always desperate to play," said Ferguson. It is a welcome problem. So, indeed, is his defensive decision. Nemanja Vidic has only played once in 2010, but the Serb's availability spells bad news for either Jonny Evans or West Brown. Villa's blend of pace, power and set-piece expertise makes a commanding defender a requirement. "They've got some very quick players in Ashley Young and Gabby Agbonlahor, while someone like John Carew gives them a different dimension up front," said United's Darron Gibson.
"He's big and strong and a real handful." Nevertheless, it is significant that whereas the strongest available side were selected for both legs of the semi-final against City, the rotation policy could be restored today. It could be a trademark Ferguson bluff, but the manager said he will have to deliberate between three goalkeepers: Ben Foster, Tomasz Kuszczak and Edwin van der Sar, who has signed a new one-year contract.
It is even suggested that Gibson, only granted one start in eight weeks since the FA Cup exit to Leeds, will begin the game. "Hopefully I'll be involved at some stage of the game," said the Irishman. Villa may hope so, too. But Martin O'Neill's side are the only visitors to win at Old Trafford in the Premier League and have taken four points off United this season. There are grounds to field the best team at Ferguson's disposal. But then different stages of the Carling Cup have revealed different priorities. Some finals are anti-climaxes - for United, last season's Champions League encounter with Barcelona proving a case-in-point - but few kick off amid a sense that, win or lose, the semi-final meant more.