Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini last night brushed aside accusations that his side are over-cautious and insisted that a point gained from Manchester United proved his team are inching closer to overhauling Sir Alex Ferguson's club.
Mancini's determination to stick with three holding midfielders at home to an injury-hit United made for minimal opportunities in one of the dourest Manchester derbies for years. But Mancini, whose side have only 15 Premier League goals this season, brushed aside critics including United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, who said United were the only side with ambition.
"It's not important for me if I'm criticised," Mancini said, after television pundits Graeme Souness and Ruud Gullit also accused his side of negativity. "It's a good point for me. I think we are improving from last year. I prefer one point tonight than no points like last season when we scored a few goals."
Van der Sar, whose side are now four points adrift of the summit after Chelsea's 1-0 home win against Fulham, said: "City did not really come forward and leave their defensive position. They were clearly aiming for a point whereas we really wanted to win. I did not have much to do apart from a free-kick and if the game had lasted longer we might have got more."
This was the first 0-0 draw in a Manchester derby since Kevin Keegan's side drew a blank at Old Trafford in November 2004. But Mancini, whose side are now seven points off Chelsea in fourth place, insisted the gulf is being closed between the clubs.
"We are getting closer [to United]," he said. "We tried to win because we want to win. When you play every few days the players are tired. We are getting close. We need more time. We did not have many chances to score but it's a derby and things like this can happen. Last year in four games there were I don't know how many goals. This year – nothing."
Ferguson suggested that the focus on what had been the most keenly anticipated match of the season might have contributed to the stalemate in which a low shot from Patrice Evra and a Dimitar Berbatov scissor-kick were the highlights.
"In the build up to the game, there was maybe too much tension to be as open a match as many people thought there was going to be," Ferguson said. "I think City are difficult to beat on their own ground. That was obvious from the way they set their stall out in the second half.
"We controlled the game and some of our football was very good. We had good composure on the ball but we needed to make chances. That's disappointing. We don't count draws coming away from home as our target, our target is to win the game and I think we had enough possession to do that. Chelsea came here and lost and if City had not had a man sent off early on against Arsenal the result could have been different. They are obviously going to be difficult to beat on their own ground."
Chelsea's win came courtesy of a goal on the half-hour from Michael Essien, who was later sent off. Arsenal also won, 2-0 at Wolverhampton Wanderers, with goals in the first and last minutes by Marouane Chamakh though Liverpool's brief rally was halted during a dire 1-1 draw at Wigan Athletic.
For United, who have not lost since Chelsea's title-defining win at Old Trafford 221 days ago, the draw extends their games without defeat to 25 – though they lost both full-backs, Rafael da Silva and Evra, to injury within 20 second-half minutes.
City's Nigel de Jong put in a commanding performance, though Mancini also singled out Carlos Tevez – who he said might have contributed more had City not been denied the services of Mario Balotelli, whose three-game ban is one Mancini is bitterly unhappy about. "Mario can play left wing, attack and defend. For me, this [ban] is not a correct decision," he said. "It's incredible. I do not agree with the decision but it's finished now. We can do nothing."