Thrills, intrigue, mystery — and that was just the team-sheet. A pity the show didn’t live up to the cast list.
Manchester United picked Wayne Rooney. Chelsea picked what is known in modern football parlance as a false nine. The crowd might as well have picked fluff out of their navels. A game that promised plenty, at the very least a compelling tactical battle, delivered less than the sum of its parts.
There were talented players here, but they were smothered by efficient resistance and Jose Mourinho’s gambit of coming north without a conventional starting striker. As a consequence, this wasn’t even one for the purists, for those that love the subtlety of the chess match. This was a failure, pure and simple.
The point of football is to score a goal, so by definition, any 0-0 draw has failed in the point of the game. A 0-0 draw involving Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Eden Hazard and Oscar — plus a fine undercard — is a particularly damp squib.
To be fair, Rooney did his utmost. With 13 minutes to go he forced the best — the only real — save of the night from Petr Cech with a shot from 25 yards.
It wasn’t enough. Had a couple of Danny Welbeck’s chances fallen his way, or to Van Persie, it might have been different but Welbeck is the least efficient of United’s forwards and the score remained the same.
All in all, it was a disappointing evening for which Chelsea were mostly to blame. The false nine can be an exhilarating tactic — after all, Barcelona and Arsenal’s Invincibles are among those who have played it. Last night, however, it served merely to stifle.
Rough and tumble: Cole scythes RVP down during an entertaining but goalless first-half
Here's the areas Rooney covered at Old Trafford - now click here for your bumper stats zone from the clash between Man United and Chelsea
Mourinho had his reasons for deploying Andre Schurrle where a proper match winner should be, but it appeared his players did not share his faith. One imagines they would not have given a player of, say, Van Persie’s calibre the paucity of service that Schurrle received.
It was no surprise that David de Gea’s best save of the night — and again, it wasn’t a wide field — came from a speculative shot from a central defender, Gary Cahill.
Chelsea’s starting XI read almost like an invitation. Here, Wayne, it seemed to say, look what you could be for us. Just come to Stamford Bridge. Look at how important you could be. Look at this space just waiting to be filled. All this could be yours, Wayne. All yours.
Handball? The Old Trafford faithful were on their feet asking for a penalty after the ball hit Lampard's hands
Was this Mourinho’s cunning plan? More likely it was simple coincidence. If Manchester United have a flaw in the heart of defence, it is vulnerability to pace and Schurrle is quick, powerful and strong. Maybe Mourinho thought this was the best way to get at Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. If so, he was wrong. The pair did not give Schurrle a sniff, utterly overwhelmed him with almost contemptuous ease.
They are an outstanding partnership in this form — but then most weeks they get more of a game than Chelsea offered up, even from the inferiors that visit Old Trafford.
Contrastingly, if Rooney’s plan was to show Chelsea what they were missing — and remind United of his worth — it had considerably greater success. He was everywhere, the best forward on the field (it would be hard to see beyond the two central defensive pairings for the men of the match). Not always to great effect, it must be said, but then it wasn’t an open game.
What action there was often involved Rooney, who answered any questions about divided loyalties considering Chelsea’s summer pursuit by flattening opposing captain John Terry in an aerial challenge minutes after the opening.
Instantly, Rooney was his old self. He knew where his loyalties lay, despite Chelsea’s travelling support announcing that they would see him next week.
Rooney hassled and bustled, even if Chelsea’s five-man midfield did much to smother the game. Much of United’s best work came from him.
Dive? Cole incensed the home fans after taking a tumble under very little contact from Jones
In the 29th minute, Tom Cleverley fed the ball to the edge of the penalty area and Rooney shaped beautifully to make himself space, before finishing weakly, attempting to pass the ball into the net but succeeding only in offering a tame trickler to Cech.
It was much the same after the break, United making the play and Patrice Evra working the ball through to Rooney, who demonstrated sublime skill to bring in Welbeck, the England striker turning before finishing with a shot hit dead straight and therefore harmless and wide.
Watching England manager Roy Hodgson must hope the same fate does not befall a good chance in Kiev in two weeks’ time. England’s World Cup qualification bid could depend on it.
New era, new boss: Moyes found his place in the United dugout and was given a warm welcome by the fans
A large penalty shout for United followed soon after, but referee Martin Atkinson correctly ruled that Frank Lampard was too near the ball when it was struck to have handled Cleverley’s shot deliberately.
He was equally astute in waving away an Ashley Cole fall that may reignite the debate over retrospective action for diving. Certainly initial views of the slow motion replay revealed little incriminating from United.
It wasn’t solely the Rooney show, however, and Manchester United’s first shot of the Moyes era at Old Trafford came from his partner Van Persie — ably guarded by Terry for most of the match. The fact that this event took place in the 23rd minute shows how successful Chelsea were in limiting United’s opportunities.
Staying game: Rooney is wanted by Chelsea but was promoted to the starting XI to face his suitors
Warm welcome: Mourinho and Moyes embraced before kick-off at Old Trafford
Viewed from a purely pragmatic perspective, therefore, Mourinho, Chelsea and his false nine did a job. A point at Old Trafford is never a bad result, and this draw halted the early United charge that began with an impressive 4-1 win at Swansea City.
This was also Moyes’s first home game as Manchester United manager — and an anti-climax is precisely what Mourinho would have wished to inflict, keeping the pressure on for the trip to Liverpool this Sunday.
Chelsea, meanwhile, have opened the season with back-to-back home wins and a draw away to the champions. Very solid, just as Mourinho would have wished.
Yet this was hardly the expansive football that had been anticipated with the second coming of His Specialness. Maybe the transfer window dust needs to settle for the show to begin.
Keen observers: Everton boss Roberto Martinez watches the match alongside Man City boss Manuel Pellegrini
Either way, we are already missing Sir Alex Ferguson. It wasn’t the fault of his successor, but the old boy would have hated this.
His last 0-0 draw in the league at Old Trafford? May 16, 2009.
Champions challenge begins: The fans arrived early for the first home league game of the new season
United front: The home fans heralded the arrival of Moyes and implored Rooney not to join rivals Chelsea