The dominance of English football's principal four teams is reflected not just in the League table over recent seasons, but in the list of Community Shield participants. In the annual August meeting of League champions and FA Cup winners, Portsmouth's appearance last year was the first since 1996 by any club other than the familiar quartet. They did not embellish the occasion, which Manchester United duly won on penalties for the third time in six seasons after a dull goalless draw.
A similar outcome on what is expected to be a hot afternoon would hardly be a surprise as United and Chelsea slowly gear up for the long slog of the next nine months. A year ago Sir Alex Ferguson referred to the match as a "barometer" of his team's condition; tapped this morning, the instrument would read something between "good" and "fair", after Nemanja Vidic joined Edwin van der Sar and fellow defenders Gary Neville and Wes Brown as unavailable.
One goalkeeper's absence, of course, is another's opportunity; or in this case two men's. Ben Foster and Tomasz Kuszczak are likely to be given 45 minutes each, as they were in last Wednesday's friendly against Valencia, to stake their claim for the place that Van der Sar has been forced to forsake for the next few weeks after breaking a hand. For Foster it is also another chance to impress the England manager Fabio Capello, who admired his match-winning performance at Wembley in last season's Carling Cup final.
"I think that Ben Foster will be England's goalkeeper, I really do," Ferguson said on Friday. "For Fabio's part, he needs to play. I'm well aware of that and I'll take that on board seriously because I don't want the boy to miss the opportunity to play for his country. He signed a five-year contract and that shows that he's confident about what his future is like here. He's 26 now but we didn't sign [Peter] Schmeichel until he was 26 so his career is just starting."
On the other hand, the manager wants to play fair by Kuszczak, who spent much of last season in the unenviable role of substitute. "It's a dilemma and the funny thing is that Kuszczak has had all the activity every time he's played," Ferguson added. "I think Ben's had about two saves in the times that he's been on the pitch for us. All he's had to do is field the ball, which he is magnificent at. He can chip them with either foot and he's got great length with his kicking.
"Your choices for a goalkeeper are very few. You can't play him right-back or left-back. Those two young goalkeepers have been faced with what I think is the best goalkeeper in Europe in Van der Sar. He's been fantastic since he joined us. You could quite rightly compare him with Schmeichel because of the consistency. They're both winners, great trainers and the similarities are there. That's what makes it difficult."
So there are few worries about the last line of defence, and in front of whoever pulls on the jersey Johnny Evans has proved a capable deputy when required, as he will be today. United supporters are more concerned about the choices further forward.
The absence of the unfortunate Owen Hargreaves – currently being monitored in the United States – is now taken for granted, but the size of the hole left by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo and his 91 goals in three seasons may soon become apparent.
It will take more than one man to fill it. Antonio Valencia, the £17m signing from Wigan, will do his best on the right-hand side; in terms of goals, and stature, however, Ferguson is looking to Dimitar Berbatov to improve on his tentative first season.
"I think we were a bit unfair to him last season but we know how to use him this season and he won't change from that. He won't be playing in deep midfield positions where he found himself a lot last year because the speed of our play doesn't co-ordinate with him in that respect.
"I think that's how we saw him at Tottenham and maybe we were wrong there," he admitted. "Once we realised before the end of the season, he started to stay further up the pitch. He's got a languid style of running but he is quickish [even if] he hasn't got the pace of Ronaldo or Nani."
The hope is that Berbatov will dovetail with Wayne Rooney, who can drop off him a little, though not too far; and that Michael Owen, who has already impressed Ferguson with his movement, can recover some of his old finishing skills. Then there is Federico Macheda, who made such an impact with winning goals in his first two League games. "He's a winner isn't he?" Ferguson asked rhetorically.
As for the manager in the opposite dug-out today, Carlo Ancelotti is ever ready to talk about Milan's 3-0 win over United in the 2007 Champions' League semi-final ("the best performance of my Milan"), less so about the 1999 semi-final when his Juventus side turned a 2-0 lead at home to United into a 3-2 defeat.
There is mutual respect between the pair and Ferguson makes the point that Ancelotti, as a European club manager, is better equipped to lead Chelsea than Luiz Felipe Scolari, who arrived after several years away from the day-to-day routine.
The Italian has never played or managed at Wembley, his earliest memory of the place being via a television set as a young country boy when Capello's goal gave Italy their first victory over England 36 years ago. "I want to win, starting on Sunday," he said of his season's objectives. Ferguson, having seen it all before and so often, will be playing a longer game.
Before kick-off, there will be a minute's applause for Sir Bobby Robson, whose cancer charity will benefit from a donation by the Football Association of £1 for every spectator to add to the £75,000 they have already contributed.Reuse content