Manchester United had lost their previous home game 6-1. Chelsea had drawn their previous league match 3-3. Their meeting was a guarantee of goals. Or so it seemed.
What transpired instead was perhaps the most disappointing game of the season and one of the dullest. It was just the Premier League’s second 0-0 draw of the season and there were spells when both teams put the ‘stale’ in stalemate. After a soporific start in soppy conditions, there was a handful of notable incidents, but it was largely uneventful and underwhelming.
United, at least, had a first point at Old Trafford this season, Chelsea just a second away league clean sheet under Frank Lampard. It was arguably a better point for the visitors, and it could have been more. The returning Harry Maguire escaped conceding a penalty when he wrestled Cesar Azpilicueta in the box.
The fit-again captain came back for Axel Tuanzebe, who was outstanding in Tuesday’s win over Paris Saint-Germain, and if he was fortunate then, some of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s other gambits felt less successful.
Selecting Daniel James backfired, with his pace negated by Chelsea’s deep defence, and while Juan Mata drew a save from Edouard Mendy, he was otherwise unable to replicate his excellent display at Newcastle.
Chelsea could enjoy Mendy’s third clean sheet in as many games since his signing. Initially, however, he was so unoccupied his main threat seemed to be a lack of concentration. He almost skewed a pass into his own net, flirting with the most embarrassing of own goals. Otherwise, he impressed.
He was aided by Thiago Silva, who benefited from Chelsea’s low block. The 36-year-old excelled against the quicker Marcus Rashford and the forward’s first opening stemmed from a mistake by Jorginho to send him sprinting clear.
He drilled a shot that Mendy stuck out his right leg to turn wide and, much like a second save the goalkeeper made from Rashford in injury time, it felt the kind of effort that Kepa Arrizabalaga would not have stopped.
But there was a surfeit of caution from managers who were prolific finishers in their playing days.
They prioritised solidity, Solskjaer favouring the double midfield shield of Scott McTominay and Fred and Lampard borrowing from his FA Cup semi-final blueprint against United by fielding three centre-backs and keeping men behind the ball.
The first shot of note did not arrive until the 28th minute when Reece James tried to catch David de Gea out with a free kick; the Spaniard, so culpable against United at Wembley, read it.
As Chelsea grew into the game, Christian Pulisic started to exert more of an influence and, after one bright break, Victor Lindelof deflected the American’s shot wide. Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, however, were quiet and were replaced.
Solskjaer, meanwhile, summoned Paul Pogba – again reduced to the rank of substitute – and Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan almost had an immediate impact on his debut; his first touch was an inventive flicked shot that nestled in the side netting. It would have been a goal out of keeping with a drab game.