The derby build-up was diplomatic yesterday, Sir Alex Ferguson skirting around all hint of controversy until someone had the temerity to ask, at the end, whether he would settle for a draw at Old Trafford today.
"I'll have to jog my memory if I've ever tried to settle for a point or not," he said. It was an excellent last word on the subject of Manchester City.
But it does not take a Carlos Tevez billboard to remind the Manchester United manager of City's relentless encroachments. When he scans the opposition teamsheet today and sees Yaya Touré's name there will be a reminder that the days are gone when every player in world football would choose the Reds over the Blues. United approached the Ivorian shortly after his stellar performance in central defence for Barcelona had helped them to victory over Ferguson's side in the 2009 Champions League final. However, Touré says he told them he was too intrigued by the possibility of playing in the same City side as his brother, Kolo, to opt for Old Trafford. Whether the £200,000-a-week salary may also have been the greater enticement, when a move materialised 12 months later is beside the point. He chose City, which may yet prove fateful today when – if Ferguson is to be believed – United enter the Old Trafford derby without Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans.
The mere notion of Touré lining up beside Nemanja Vidic will, of course, puzzle those who have watched the 27-year-old develop from a holding midfielder into the more influential asset he has become further up the field – and where he may appear behind Edin Dzeko today. A midfielder Touré essentially is, though his finest hour for Pep Guardiola's side came in that Rome final against United two years ago when, dispossessed of his usual midfield berth by Sergio Busquets, he was deployed as an emergency central defender, neutralised the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo and helped depose United as European champions.
The fraternal spirit should not be entirely discounted from the reasons why Touré's journey to training is the marginally shorter drive from the M60's junction eight than the one United's players take to their own training complex just across the fields from City's. The brothers are very close. Kolo, after all, is the one who blazed a trail in football for the Touré family and who as 12-year-old struggled, in a way that Yaya never did, to persuade their father, Mory, that a footballer's life was for him. By the time Yaya wanted to follow suit, football had "become this family's drug," as their father has since said. It helped that Kolo, two years Yaya's senior, could bring home supplies of rice after he received his bonuses at the fabled ASEC Mimosas academy, which he was encouraged to join when spotted playing for a team in the Yopougon quarter of his home city of Abidjan.
Their journeys through football have differed radically. While Kolo played senior football for the ASEC club for two years, departing for Arsenal at the age of 20, Yaya was hungry to reach Europe sooner, heading straight from youth football for the Belgian club Beveren at the age of 18. Arsène Wenger might actually have had two Tourés on his hands at one stage. The Arsenal manager took Yaya on trial from Beveren three years after Kolo's arrival at Highbury and played him in a friendly against Barnet, though was more interested in signing a certain left-back called Gaël Clichy from Cannes. It did not help Touré's cause that he played up front and missed a sitter in that friendly and Wenger's staff would have observed that he is not the quickest either, though that is not a problem. Guardiola once described him as a "diesel player" – fine once he gets warmed up and also very powerful.
The rejection made Yaya's route up to football's top table a long and hard one, gradually building a reputation at places like Metalurg Donetsk in Ukraine, Olympiakos and Monaco before Barcelona came around to Kolo's own view that his little brother was an Ivorian version of Patrick Vieira. Back in their homeland, no one could work out why Yaya – who after the first of his three seasons at Barcelona was voted the most effective player to have joined the club in 12 months – should have taken so much longer to reach the elite than his brother. "Yaya was always the most gifted of those two brothers," was the recent testimony of Amani Yao, who worked with both brothers at the ASEC Academy. "Kolo did not have the best technical level when he first came here [even though] he was a great, great trier, with an ambition you could see in his eyes. But Yaya made football look easy; had a vision of the field even as a teenager that you expect from a coach, and always played with his head up."
The intelligence was apparently also evident in the classroom before he took up football. "He was very intelligent – by his first year at grammar school he was always first or second in class," his father has said. "But he felt football was his vocation."
Kolo is marginally the more outgoing of the two brothers and certainly the one who exudes more competitive fire on occasions like today. Perhaps that is because it was he who sold newspapers by the side of the road as a 12-year-old and shined shoes for less than a pound a time to help his family ward off the poverty the brothers were born into. Kolo speaks of the experience often and it is a reason why his son and daughter, both under five, know the value of possessions. "I tell my little girl that if she wants a present she has to work hard to get it and that nothing comes easy in life," he told The Independent when he first arrived in Manchester.
But both are among the most reflective players at City. Kolo is the individual who, on Fridays at Arsenal, would always be last out to speak to the press because he had nipped to prayers first and has now settled on a mosque in Manchester's Stretford district. Yaya is also devoutly religious. "When I want to start something or do something, I involve the name of God, because for me he is so important," he said during City's pre-season tour last summer. The brothers are planning to embark on work establishing a foundation together to help young people in their homeland. Ivory Coast's five-year armed conflict between rebels and those loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo saw hundreds die between 2002 and 2007 and Kolo's and Yaya's lives in Europe have unfolded amid particular anxieties for their younger brother Ibrahim back home. He is now in Egypt and has also tried to plot a career path amid the dangers of the Ivorian civil war.
Yaya is the one Ferguson has most to fear from this lunchtime, though. Reflective he might be but to his more fleet-footed midfield colleagues Xavi and Andres Iniesta at Barcelona he was the "big brother" in a team short on physical presence. Guardiola's criticism was that Yaya could be a little bit undisciplined, going off on mazy runs which, to the coach's eyes, sometimes dragged the team out of shape. However, in the advanced role City's Roberto Mancini has created for him, he has become the steel to David Silva's silk and has been particularly strong at instigating counter-attacks, one of which could be the difference between the sides at Old Trafford. "Manchester United is a big club – one of the biggest in the world – but I chose Manchester City because they had not won anything," Yaya said last summer. Occasions like today's will dictate whether that is about to change.
Brothers In Arms
The Tourés are the latest footballing brothers to have played in the same side.
Gary (35) and Phil Neville (34)
Played together with England and Manchester United between 1995-2005.
Rafael and Fabio da Silva (20)
The identical Brazilian twins are both full-backs for Manchester United.
Steven (30) and Gary Caldwell (28)
The Scottish international defenders currently ply their trade for Wigan Athletic.
Shaun (29) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (25)
The half-brothers played together for Manchester City in 2004-05.
Frank and Ronald de Boer
The Dutch twins played in the same side at Rangers, Ajax and Barcelona.
Jack and Bobby Charlton
Jack and younger brother were part of England's 1966 World Cup winning side.
Ian and David Brightwell
Played in the Manchester City defence in the early 1990s. Ian was the elder.