A match of few chances saw Chelsea depart the north-west with a creditable point on Monday night, as we continued our unbeaten start to the league season.
It was an absorbing rather than exciting game, and the point will probably please Jose Mourinho more than his counterpart David Moyes, who was taking charge of his first home game as United manager, and over the 90 minutes it was the Manchester side that created more goalscoring opportunities, though it should be said that Petr Cech, in chalking up his 200th Chelsea clean sheet, did not have to work particularly hard.
Robin Van Persie went close in the first half with a vicious drive the goalkeeper was able to watch wide, and the Dutchman then headed over, while for Chelsea Oscar twice shot straight at the goalkeeper.
After the break Wayne Rooney forced Cech into one low save, but Chelsea defended resolutely, and credit should go in particular to the outstanding John Terry and Gary Cahill in ensuring United were to end the game frustrated.
Mourinho caused a few shockwaves with his selection, naming a line-up without one of his recognised centre-forwards. Eden Hazard, Oscar, Kevin De Bruyne and Andre Schurrle were his front four, and it was the summer signing from Germany, making his first competitive start, that would fill the striker’s role, which some expected to be left void like the Spanish national side had done to good effect previously.
Both Fernando Torres and Romelu Lukaku were on the bench, but there was no Demba Ba who had started against Aston Villa in our previous outing.
United made one change, bringing in Chelsea target Rooney in place of veteran Ryan Giggs, with the England man slotting in behind first-choice forward Van Persie in a 4-2-3-1 formation mirroring our own.
Manchester United against Chelsea has become one of the Premier League’s biggest clashes, and this particular meeting had more subplots than the usual.
It was slightly surprising then that it was intriguing rather than explosive, with Oscar’s drive straight at United’s David De Gea all either side had to show for goalscoring opportunities in the opening 20 minutes, though John Terry needed to be alert to cut out a Rooney cross intended for Van Persie shortly afterwards.
Van Persie was the league’s top scorer last season, and he came close after 23 minutes when he stole possession on the edge of the Chelsea box, unleashing a fearsome drive that hit the side-netting. Then he headed a Patrice Evra cross just over before Rooney shot tamely at Cech.
Chelsea, and Oscar and Hazard in particular, had been scheming and playing some tidy football, but were lacking punch in the final third. Schurrle was seeing little of the action.
Seven minutes before the break United threatened again, a long build-up eventually seeing Terry half clear a low cross to the edge of the area, from where Tom Cleverley fired over Cech’s bar.
The half ended as it began, Oscar picking the ball up on the edge of the United box, and sending a shot straight towards De Gea, which the goalkeeper dealt with easily.
Neither side made changes at the break, and it was once more United who looked the likelier to score after the restart, their best chance falling to Danny Welbeck after 55 minutes after Evra had dispossessed De Bruyne and fed Rooney, who slipped a short pass to his England team-mate. Welbeck bent his shot well over under pressure from the excellent Terry, who then broke up a United counter with Chelsea looking vulnerable.
Cahill, from distance, brought a diving save from De Gea but still most of Chelsea’s work was on the back foot. Frank Lampard blocked a Cleverley half-volley inside the box, prompting penalty appeals around Old Trafford, but referee Martin Atkinson was well placed to wave play on.
In the technical area, Mourinho had acted first, bringing on Torres for De Bruyne and moving Schurrle to the right, while David Moyes soon followed as he introduced Ashley Young in place of Antonio Valencia.
Terry was on hand to head away again, before Rooney brought a stretching save from Cech as time began to run down.
Both sides had wanted to win, but by this point it seemed neither wanted to lose, and Mourinho attempted to shut up shop with the introduction of John Mikel Obi three minutes from time.
United would have a huge opportunity immediately after the Nigerian came on though, and it was Mikel who blocked Van Persie’s volley, the ball rebounding to Evra who volleyed well wide.
That would be the final chance of the game, with just three added minutes signalled by Atkinson. It means we leave Old Trafford top of the league, albeit having played three games to most teams’ two.
It is now on to Prague and the UEFA Super Cup tie with Bayern Munich. That encounter is on Friday night, and will be every bit as well discussed as this one.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Vidic (c), Evra; Carrick, Cleverley; Valencia (Young 66) Rooney, Welbeck (Giggs 77); Van Persie.
Unused substitutes: Lindegaard, Smalling, Buttner, Anderson, Kagawa.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry (c), Cole; Ramires, Lampard; De Bruyne (Torres 59), Oscar, Hazard (Azpilicueta 90+3); Schurrle (Mikel 86).
Unused substitutes: Schwarzer, Essien, Mata, Lukaku.
Booked De Bruyne 31, Torres 79
Referee Martin Atkinson