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Wayne Rooney stood out for messy Manchester United and flaccid Chelsea

After all the fevered talk, the stage-managed drama of leak and counter-leak, it was a night of stasis at Old Trafford in more ways than one, at the end of which Chelsea would seem close to giving up on their pursuit of Wayne Rooney.

"They do not want to sell," José Mourinho said afterwards, settling on a rather weary long-shot tactic – and he will receive warm support in this from all quarters – of urging Rooney to simply come out and ask for a move if he actually wants one.

"It is time to finish the story," Mourinho added, a sentiment that will no doubt be welcomed by spectators of one of the Premier League's more barkingly hype-bound encounters – and there is stiff competition here – that looked by the end like a case of English football taking its own revenge for a month-long barrage of fruitless intrigue by dishing out an old-fashioned meandering mess of a match.

At times during a fitful 0-0 draw at Old Trafford it was tempting to conclude that not only could both teams do with one, two or even three fully-fit Wayne Rooneys at the same time but many of those watching would have benefited from a dedicated Rooney of their own to make a little small-talk and generally leaven the densely thicketed tedium of a match that provided not so much an intricate tactical battle as 90 minutes of effortful caution. Welcome back, then, José.

And yet there was also encouragement for David Moyes and most obviously for Rooney himself, who provided what spark there was and who was throughout warmly embraced by an Old Trafford crowd that greeted even the announcement of his name before kick-off with unbound enthusiasm on a sweltering Manchester evening. If Rooney's presence on the team sheet qualified as a news event in itself, there was also a predictable skein of mischief in Mourinho's own line-up. A team with no recognised striker can look rather pointed when your chief summer target is foraging around at the other end of the pitch, the tactical equivalent of Mourinho setting a place, pouring an aperitif and seductively patting the empty chair at the head of the table.

In the event Mourinho's four-man creative team looked less an indication of a new-found attacking sophistication than a reflection of his enduring caution on such occasions. Before kick-off Chelsea's manager had threatened a blizzard of movement to unsettle United's ageing defence but this was more like a gentle drizzle as Oscar and Eden Hazard held their positions on the flanks. For David Moyes it was perhaps even – whisper it – something of a tactical triumph in a game where holding his own seemed unusually vital. Moyes could even have afforded to lose here: but he had to lose right. To be tactically gazumped, or made to look like a rather callow 50-year-old trophy virgin in the glow of the ever-luminous José would have chimed terribly with some of the mild negativity he has faced.

Instead his team looked the more effectively set up, with Rooney in a second striker's role behind Robin van Persie. Rooney's first touch was a neat little spin into space behind Ashley Cole, greeted with the first concerted chants of "Rooney!" around Old Trafford, albeit that in a witty coda to the incestuous confusions of the last month or so they were coming from the away support.

At the other end André Schürrle occupied the furthest forward position in Chelsea's four-pronged death-by-meandering-about attacking unit as Mourinho prowled his technical area for most of the first half, often within pouting distance of Rooney himself.

At times the Premier League does not just resemble a soap opera; it is one. And, for all the peripheral bluster, Chelsea really did look like a team who could do with Rooney here, just as Rooney himself – and this might sound like hipster-heresy – looked the most effective of the five high-grade deep-lying attackers on the pitch. It has become fashionable to downgrade England's most celebrated attacker but this was a reminder of his more obvious virtues, the explosive qualities that might have offered more thrust to one or two moments of promising Chelsea interplay.

During a slow-burn second half he remained the liveliest forward on the pitch, dropping deep to play one or two nice passes and providing the nudged pass that gave Danny Welbeck the kind of chance from eight yards out that sadly, for now, he approaches with all the precision of a man swatting midges with a shovel.

With an hour of the match gone Mourinho made the first of his fabled rejigs, though bringing on Fernando Torres to play as a lone striker will not go down as one of his more unfathomably rarefied interventions. It was simply that kind of a match.

What, then, is one supposed to make of this drama of non-departure? It is tempting to conclude that the simple fact Chelsea feel they can pursue so openly United's marquee English player is perhaps enough in itself, a display not just of financial might but of chutzpah, ambition, intimidatory corporate aggression and all the rest of it.

Not that it is all power games. Chelsea's attack – the "boys" Mourinho spoke about rather wistfully after the match – did look lightweight here.

The next few days could yet be fraught with intrigue on the Rooney front. But for now it looks, narrowly and perhaps also unexpectedly, like advantage Moyes on this one.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Barney Ronay at Old Trafford, for The Guardian on Tuesday 27th August 2013 00.39 Europe/London

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