After successive defeats to Blackburn and Newcastle, Ferguson is again on the back foot.
Three points adrift of City in the Premier League title race, United head to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday looking to avoid suffering a third loss on the trot for the first time since 2001.
He does so with a squad badly depleted by injury and convinced the players he could bring in to bolster it are not of the right quality to enhance United long-term.
Yet, despite the pessimism, Ferguson also knows his players carry a history of fighting successfully against the odds.
More importantly, the Scot is aware his opponents know it too.
"Manchester City have a strong, experienced squad," said Ferguson.
"It is not unexpected where they are at the moment.
"But they also know we are right behind them."
It leaves Ferguson convinced only Tottenham could gatecrash the Manchester duopoly in the Premier League, the United boss admitting his own side have scrapped exceptionally hard to maintain an interest.
"In some respects, we can say well done to still be there," he said.
"And we are still there. A lot is going to happen between now and the end of the season but I can't see anyone outside the three top teams winning the league.
"Arsenal and Chelsea need all three teams to collapse and I don't think that will happen."
Yet those words merely heighten the feeling amongst United fans that their club could just do with one or two more players during the current transfer window to make the difference between winning trophies and ending up as also-rans.
Frank Lampard's name has now emerged and whilst it would be a more obvious move if Ferguson tried to talk Paul Scholes out of retirement for the remainder of the campaign, it was interesting that, in a defence of his recruitment policy, the United manager did not reject the theory of signing Chelsea's long-serving midfielder, just the notion of Andre Villas-Boas being willing to do a deal.
"You are not going to tell me Chelsea would sell Frank Lampard to Manchester United in January. Do you really believe that?" said Ferguson.
"There is no foundation to that. Chelsea are like us. They want to do something. The second half of the season is going to be important to them.
"If they want to try and win the league they will need to have all their best players."
The same could be said of many potential targets, which is why he believes it is better to trust the players at his disposal, even though defeat in Sunday's FA Cup tie would pile even more pressure on the men from Old Trafford.
"The thing is, what can you get in January?" he said.
"I have said this all the time. The players who are available that we would like, we won't get.
"What do you do? Do you take a second rate player? No, of course you don't.
"The injury situation has accelerated a lot of our fans into saying we will have to get someone.
"I would rather stick with the ones I have got than bring someone in who ends up not having a game anyway because they are not good enough."
So, with Chris Smalling still ruled out due to a nasty bout of tonsillitis, Ferguson will rely on the players who failed at Newcastle on Wednesday to re-establish credibility after the 6-1 humiliation when they last faced City, at Old Trafford in October.
Not that Ferguson wanted to discuss that miserable day.
"I won't be mentioning it," he said.
"We have enough experienced players in the squad to cope with a really difficult tie. I always say I would take anyone in a home draw. The advantage is with Manchester City in that respect.
"But it is a cup tie. It is a local derby and anything can happen in these games."