The backdrop to this season's fourth Manchester derby could hardly seem more gloomy for United.
Out of the Champions League and four points adrift of league leaders Chelsea with just four matches remaining, Ferguson might ordinarily have had a job raising spirits around Old Trafford.
But it is not just the sight of Wayne Rooney testing out the ankle injury that looks to have eased sufficiently for him to return, nor the presence of Owen Hargreaves in Ferguson's squad for the first time since September 2008, nor even Paul Scholes signing a one-year contract extension, that has brought a sense of focus back to United minds.
It is the knowledge that City, the team they have laughed at for so long, are just five wins away from joining them in the Champions League next season.
"In over 23 years at United it is the first time we have played City when they have a chance of actually achieving something," said Ferguson.
"Whenever we have played City they have always said they will beat us, whether it is a chairman, director or somebody else.
"That is what a derby game does. Supporters want to hear that.
"But this is a different game in terms of City's position and you can be sure whatever happens it is going to be pivotal in terms of both clubs' prospects for the season."
Whether United overcome overwhelming odds and complete an unprecedented fourth successive championship win or not, Ferguson and his team will take their customary place in the Champions League next season.
The opportunity to join them is what City are scrapping for with Tottenham.
If they are successful it would give Manchester the same status as Milan, with two high-ranking clubs in Europe's number one competition.
And, as Ferguson is aware, it would also allow the Blues to embark on a spending spree.
"City would still have the small problem of United, Chelsea, Arsenal and, possibly, Liverpool, who have been disappointing this season, to overcome, but they will be revved up to do better.
"But the great thing about City is that they have an amazing amount of buying power. They can go and buy another team and you can be rest assured they will be buying."
Having such a major player competing for the same standard of player could create a problem for United, who, even without the debt incurred by the Glazer family, would simply not be able to match it.
Yet Ferguson appears relaxed about the situation, insisting it is no different to the time when Roman Abramovich was dipping into his vast resources to turn Chelsea into league champions.
"We may need to tweak here and there but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with our structure," he said.
"We may have to look at one or two things but nothing serious.
"It is important not to confuse ourselves with others who can buy as much as they want. We don't need to worry about that.
"It was the same when Chelsea were buying.
"What we tried to do was make sure we looked at ourselves and look where we could develop our team. It proved successful."
Indeed, it was a purchase, in the form of Dimitar Berbatov, that ultimately triggered Carlos Tevez's controversial exit.
Tevez grew increasingly irritated at his lack of matches, eventually hopping cross the Manchester divide to the blue half of the city, where he has been such a staggering success.
The Argentina star has already made his presence felt this season, scoring in both legs of the Carling Cup semi-final.
And Ferguson has conceded Tevez has enjoyed a stellar campaign, even if he has no regrets about his departure.
"Tevez had a good first season with us," said the Scot. "He didn't feature as much in the second season but you cannot dispute the fact he has had a great goalscoring campaign.
"I have no regrets whatsoever. We tried to buy him. We didn't match the money they wanted so he moved on.
"There is no doubt he had far more competition than he does at City so there was no bitterness from me.
"Players move from time to time. Some do well, some don't. You just have to move on."