Sir Alex Ferguson says Liverpool are Manchester United"s real rivals

Never mind City… this is still the big one, insists Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson cut short any talk about Patrice Evra’s return to Liverpool on Friday, but there will be no avoiding the issue at Anfield on Saturday lunchtime and what the Manchester United manager acknowledged is ‘unparalleled interest’ in a fascinating FA Cup tie.

Not after what has happened. Not when Evra, his team-mates and a global television audience will be subjected to a deafening chorus of ‘We’re not racists, we only hate Mancs’.

Ferguson has been at pains in recent months to stress that the Frenchman’s race row with Luis Suarez was a dispute between the players and not their clubs.

This is the one: Sir Alex Ferguson knows the importance of the Manchester United and Liverpool clashes

This is the one: Sir Alex Ferguson knows the importance of the Manchester United and Liverpool clashes

But the way Liverpool fans and manager Kenny Dalglish mounted such a passionate defence of their Uruguay striker — ruled out today by the eight-match ban he received for referring to Evra as ‘negro’ when the teams met here in October — has made that impossible.

It is now very much a club issue; a ‘tribal’ matter, to borrow a word Ferguson has used so often. On Friday he was a little less forthcoming when the Evra issue was brought up: ‘I’m not getting involved in that, right!’ was the response. Although Ferguson and his assistant Mike Phelan have indicated that Evra will play, consideration has been given to taking him out of the firing line.

Old rivals: Ferguson and Dalglish are both up for the cup

Old rivals: Ferguson and Dalglish are both up for the cup

A lack of left-back options would seem to make it unlikely, however. Fabio da Silva has not played since he was injured a month ago, and it is almost unthinkable that 19-year-old Ezekiel Fryers would be pitched into a game of such emotion and intensity. Playing Jonny Evans or Ryan Giggs out of position are other options, but not great ones.

If Evra does lead out the team, he will face arguably his biggest personal test since being substituted at half-time on debut in the Manchester derby six years ago.

‘You have to recognise that Manchester City has become more than it ever was in terms of the intensity of the games,’ said Ferguson.

Set to play: Patrice Evra is in line to start for United

Set to play: Patrice Evra is in line to start for United

‘There may come a time when we won’t be able to separate the two. But, at the moment, Liverpool is still the one. Even the neutral would look upon this as the biggest so far. Just look at the interest. It’s quite unparallelled.’

For all the drama surrounding Evra’s return to Anfield, Liverpool — and probably Suarez — face a Premier League trip to Old Trafford in a fortnight.

Ferguson threw another scenario into the mix. ‘It’s interesting, there could be a replay,’ he said with a smile. ‘You never know. That would get the FA going!’