Manchester City's Kolo Touré has dismissed criticism of his side's lack of ambition in the Manchester derby on Wednesday and insisted that a pragmatic approach of beating the teams "you are supposed to beat" will see the club to the target of fourth place in the Premier League.
"When you play against the top teams the most important thing is to try not to lose," said Touré, a member of the unbeaten Arsenal "Invincibles" side which drew 12 matches en route to winning the 2003-04 title by 11 points. "If you can do that and then draw against the big teams like United then you will be OK. You can be up there. It's a long season."
The respective merits of a drab goalless draw or the chance of falling to another enervating defeat in "Fergie-time", like the one City experienced at Old Trafford last year, raged into the small hours after the first goalless draw in a Manchester derby since November 2004. But in the cold light of day few City fans were maintaining the line that the latter would have been preferable.
Roberto Mancini's side are certainly a distance from the kind of outfit to be expected from £200m of summer investment, but this season's aim is neither to win the League, nor to sweep aside every club in the land with a flourish. City simply want to finish in the fourth Champions League position, which they currently hold. They believe that 70 points will probably get them there, and are indifferent to pundits like Graeme Souness and Ruud Gullit who dismissed them for lack of creativity at Eastlands on Wednesday. Tottenham Hotspur, who edged out City to clinch the fourth spot last season, are playing the kind of luscious football that the commentariat would like to see, though their erratic form and propensity to concede has hallmarks of the City sides under Mark Hughes last season which gave United such a thrilling run for their money in the 4-3 defeat at Old Trafford but shipped three goals at home to Burnley and three at Bolton. Spurs are five points adrift of City this season.
Touré, whose route to the 2003-04 title with Arsenal included a goalless draw at Old Trafford and a 1-1 draw against United at Highbury, claims his current club can succeed in the same way as Arsène Wenger's did back then. "[Winning that title] was a special day," Touré said. "It's difficult to play against the big teams. If you don't lose against them then that is good. As long as you don't lose against teams like Wigan and Fulham and Birmingham then it's OK. For sure this weekend [at home to Birmingham City] it will be different as these are must-win games. If you want to be fighting for the Premiership you have to beat these teams. I am not saying they are bad teams – but if we want to be top then we have to win those games."
Fans had to be patient with this strategy, he added. "Yes of course [they do]. It's very difficult as we were playing against top [United] players. If you make mistakes then you will get punished. That's what we didn't want to happen. Most importantly, we have a draw and a point and that's good. The most important thing is not to lose."
Not losing was particularly important as Mancini's side begin to regroup after the three successive defeats which – City being City and so many looking for a club of such vast resources to fall flat – had prompted a welter of suggestions that the Italian faced the sack. Mancini was well aware that defeat at home to United would have represented far more than the loss of face and three points.
In part, that explains the manager's reluctance to play Emmanuel Adebayor from the start of the game, though the Togolese striker's bizarre behaviour as Mancini tried to prepare him to go on to the field of play – he did not have his shinpads or boots on – will not help convince the Italian that he must persist with this particular remnant of the Hughes era.
Touré's view is clearly one that Mancini drilled into his players, since it is precisely the same one that Vincent Kompany expounded in Wednesday evening's match programme. "If you win this game it's a positive, but we will not qualify for the Champions League by winning this game alone," Kompany said. "I think the fact that we won against Blackpool and Newcastle is part of the reason we are doing well. Give me the points against the smaller teams and I believe that will get us further in the long run."
The theory advanced by the two central defenders illustrates the significance of tomorrow's home fixture with fourth-bottom Birmingham, whom they thumped 5-1 at Eastlands last season.
Sir Alex Ferguson, meanwhile, faces the more awkward visit to Aston Villa – rarely an easy place for his side in recent years – minus three more key players. Paul Scholes definitely misses the match after collecting his fifth booking of the season and incurring a one-game suspension. Ferguson has ruled out Brazilian defender Rafael da Silva after he picked up a dead leg against City, while Patrice Evra was forced off with an ankle injury that will now be assessed.