Maybe the game arrived too early in the season to be a classic.
José Mourinho's return to Old Trafford certainly never brought the drama that had been anticipated. No knee-slides in that crisp, dark suit and only a few sporadic moments when David Moyes's first home game as Manchester United manager looked as if it could turn into one of the nights of his life. For the most part the two men just stood there, hands in pockets, watching two teams slug it out without managing to create a single clear-cut chance.
A game played at this speed, with all the surrounding politics and intrigue, can never be described as entirely dull but the stalemate was disappointing given the weight of expectation that had accompanied the occasion. Some goalless draws have everything but a goal. This, however, was not one of them. It was the first 0-0 stalemate in 77 Premier League games at Old Trafford, stretching back to April 2009, and it will quickly be forgotten compared with some of Mourinho's previous visits.
For Chelsea, perhaps the greatest encouragement is that Mourinho's presence already appears to be having therapeutic effects on John Terry, who was superb alongside Gary Cahill at the heart of their defence. They had to be because Wayne Rooney was as prominently involved as anyone on a night when both sets of supporters could be heard serenading him. However scrambled his emotions, playing for a club he wants to leave against the team he wants to join, nobody could doubt Rooney's commitment on the night and, on this evidence, it is clear why Mourinho wants him and United will not let it happen. The sight of him chasing down Ramires in the last few minutes, filling in as a temporary left-back and then pulling off a perfectly executed sliding tackle, spoke volumes. The only downside was that his link-up play with Robin van Persie was noticeable for its absence.
Mourinho's assertion afterwards was that United's crowd had been so supportive, describing it as "very English"; his guess was that Rooney would probably now decide to stay in Manchester and, if not, should say so within the next 48 hours. He ignores the fact that United have made it absolutely clear they would never agree to sell him to a major domestic rival. Yet, whatever the reasons, it is clear why Mourinho craves another striker and has Samuel Eto'o lined up as a Plan B. Chelsea, for all their gifts, look short in attack and started this match without an orthodox centre-forward.
Their manager explained it on wanting to "go for mobility". In other words, Mourinho felt Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand might be vulnerable to the pace and movement of Andre Schürrle, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Oscar. It all seemed a sad reflection of the decline of Fernando Torres, a player who used to terrorise Old Trafford in Liverpool's colours. Demba Ba, too, clearly has a lot to ponder after not even making the squad. But this tactic – the false No9 or call it what you will – remains the speciality of Spain and Barcelona, not Chelsea. Schürrle and De Bruyne, in particular, were only on the edges. Mourinho's first observation after the match was that the breakaway pass, when they had the chance to counter-attack, was "not the best".
The same applied to the home side. At times the game was played at a speed more reminiscent of ice hockey and that, in turn, led to carelessness when maybe it needed someone to put his foot on the ball and start orchestrating matters with a little more subtlety. The pity for Chelsea was that Juan Mata was not fully fit and started on the bench. United played with the greater sense of adventure and the more attack-minded line-up but they, too, lacked their usual composure on the ball.
Instead it was too quick to be pretty. United, on the balance of chances created, had the slight edge but neither side could put together a sustained threat to the opposition goal. Antonio Valencia did not seem to have the confidence to believe he could get past Ashley Cole. Hazard seldom explored whether he could trouble Phil Jones. Daniel Welbeck, playing on the left of United's attack, worked diligently but the composure he had shown with his two goals at Swansea was sorely lacking when he had a couple of chances inside the first 15 minutes of the second half. This, ultimately, was the disappointment for both sides: neither Petr Cech nor David de Gea had to make a save that could be rated as more than six out of 10.
United thought they might have won a second-half penalty when Tom Cleverley cracked a shot from the edge of the penalty area and it struck Frank Lampard's hand from point-blank range. Lampard had a point afterwards when he said he did not know how he could be expected to get out of the way, but so did Moyes when he called for the rule-makers to let everyone know what should be given in those circumstances. The referee, Martin Atkinson, waved away the appeals when other like-for-like offences have already been punished this season. Moyes referred specifically to the handball penalty Tottenham Hotspur won at Crystal Palace on the opening weekend.
The new manager had been given a rousing welcome and can reflect on a satisfying start to his new job. Mourinho, with seven points out of nine, can do likewise. And next time these sides meet, it is safe to assume there might be a touch more drama and excitement.
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image: © Paolo Camera