Safety first - then careful Bruce chases European dream

Aston Villa v Birmingham City

The Second City's finest go head to head this afternoon, Birmingham City at Villa Park, a Premiership derby that reverberates more than most. Should Birmingham win, as they did on both occasions last season, their manager, Steve Bruce, will doubtless indulge in a spot of pitchside capering. But for Bruce, capable, solid defender that he was in his heyday with Manchester United, the paramount view will be a pragmatic one: he has worked out that three points will ensure his team are statistically safe from relegation.

Bruce is doing a fine job at St Andrews, building a successful team point by point, purchase by purchase, but always in his mind are those promoted clubs who have disappeared through relegation's trapdoor. "Ipswich bought wrongly and were relegated the next year," he said, still sore after an exuberant training session with his players on Friday. "You have to be careful, have to make sure you keep maintaining progress like we are doing." He is massively proud that the club are free of debt and able to put in a bid for players of the merit of Nicky Butt. That is progress, in his book.

Further progress over the next four days, first against Villa today and then in the FA Cup replay with Sunderland on Wednesday would, he claims, "put every-body in good spirits for the eight weeks after that", as the Blues pursue the dream of finishing high enough to qualify for Europe.

But first a resurgent Villa await. "I've got a pretty good record as player and manager in derbies, touch wood," said Bruce, tapping his head. "Let's hope that continues. Last season Villa took us lightly, they didn't show us the respect we deserved. I think they thought they could just turn up and turn us over." This season Villa did better in the first derby at St Andrews last October, grinding out a goalless draw.

"David O'Leary has breathed a bit of life into them since arriving, that's for sure," said Bruce. "He set his stall out with one striker in that game, he was determined he wasn't going to get beat." And this time? "I think both sides will be positive. Villa have gone four on the trot, we are unbeaten in seven, both are enjoying being in the top 10. But I can understand why Dave did what he did last time. They were at the wrong end of the table and had lost twice to us the year before.

"Derby games are never the prettiest affairs, but I don't think there is anything better. They are so typical of the British game, tackles flying in, we love to see that competitiveness and that edge. But it is vital on big occasions like this to keep your discipline. That's the message to everybody, including the supporters. We don't want any repeats of what we saw last season.

"On a day like this, all those tactics, the Christmas tree formations, aren't what matters. Sorry, it's 11 against 11, back to basics. It's whoever handles the occasion. The one thing you do need is the bounce of the ball your way. I believe this will be our sternest test against Villa. But we have a good spirit, a good team who will lay their necks on the line for you."

In this do-or-die bunch Bruce singled out his centre-half, Kenny Cunningham, for special praise. "Kenny has been absolutely terrific for the best part of 18 months since he walked through the door. He is at his peak right now. People often ask me about my best-ever signings. He came on a free from Wimbledon, so that takes some beating.

"Kenny is not the biggest, not the best in the air, not the quickest, not the best of tacklers, but he knows the game, reads it well and he's intelligent. Knowing where danger comes from sets you apart. You very rarely see him having to make a last-ditch tackle because he never gets himself exposed. And because he hasn't got the natural attributes he has to think about it. He has been terrific, and will need to be against Villa, because [Juan Pablo] Angel is on top of his game at the minute."

French World Cup-winning striker Christophe Dugarry is fit again which, as Bruce acknowledges, leaves him with a decision to make, since Mikael Forssell and Clinton Morrison have been doing well in his absence. "Mikael is a manager's delight," he said. "You can't get him off the training pitch and he lives his life well." Forssell is on a season-long loan from Chelsea and Bruce hopes to turn the loan into a signing as part of the new "can-do" attitude at Birmingham.

But, Bruce promises, there will be no tinkering with line-ups. "This is as big a week as I can remember since coming here and I'm going to put out my strongest team against Villa and let the Cup-tie against Sunderland take care of itself." He was, he stressed, "not going to try to be clever". Just successful.

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