The electronic billboards last night that advertised David Haye's heavyweight title defence against Audley Harrison in Manchester on Saturday promised knockout punches and an engrossing dose of personal animosity which, in the end, was a good deal more than the city's two great football clubs mustered.
They danced around each other, they feinted and they swayed but neither ever threatened to land a blow. There was one offside and no memorable chance for either team. It would have been a relief if either team had jutted out a chin in the name of ambition and tried to take the game by the lapels. But in the end they hid behind two dominant defences and the lesser evil of not losing the game.
Whose fault? Roberto Mancini has lavished millions on strikers but he can only find room for one, Carlos Tevez, when it comes to games like this. If Manchester City have ambitions of becoming part of the English football elite, if they want the grudging admiration that all the big clubs earn, then they need to be confident enough to try to win games at home whoever the opposition.
With Mancini it seems enough not to lose matches such as these. It is a pragmatic approach and you might be able to justify it if the gap between his side and their famous neighbours was so vast but last night it felt like United were there for the taking. They were without Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and the long-term injured Antonio Valencia. There is a touch of vulnerability about them. City never grasped their opportunity.
In the fourth minute of time added on at the end of the second half, Mancini brought off Tevez and replaced him with Emmanuel Adebayor. Even with 30 seconds on the clock the Italian coach was not prepared to play two strikers. Adebayor took so long getting ready that it was obvious he was far from delighted about a meaningless cameo. On this occasion it was hard not to feel sympathetic.
As for Sir Alex Ferguson, he seemed to recognise early on that his opponents did not have the stomach to take any risks. The United manager was just as conservative in his own formation – it was 4-5-1 masquerading as 4-3-3 – but then to be fair to him, his side were playing away from home. It was City's job to take the initiative but Mancini's conservative nature suited Ferguson whose team were well-prepared for a midfield slog.
Nemanja Vidic and, to a lesser extent, Rio Ferdinand were excellent in defence and the midfield three of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher were solid. The same could be said of Vincent Kompany and Kolo Touré for City and the likes of Gareth Barry and Yaya Touré were decent, too, but all that midfield competence has to have some flourish to go with it.
What, City's fans are entitled to ask, is the point of spending all that Arab oil money if it is not to deliver the kind of memorable nights when they beat United? Mancini said that he did not care if he was criticised for playing so defensively although, while Chelsea and Arsenal both won, it was hard to see quite the point of his masterplan. There is still the return fixture in February but if City were defensive last night then what will they be like at Old Trafford?
The sight of Fabio Capello talking animatedly to the world's No 1 golfer Lee Westwood, who was sat next to him, made you wonder what the England manager found so exciting about yesterday's game. The most notable moment came at the end of the first half when Rafael da Silva and Tevez went nose-to-nose and had to be broken up twice by referee Chris Foy. There had been a few niggling tackles between them and presumably a whole Brazil-Argentina thing going on, too.
Also chipping in with some trademark aggression of his own was Scholes, who committed three blatant fouls on James Milner before he was booked by Foy on the insistence of the home crowd. Scholes is one part slow, one part nasty and even in his dotage his dodgy tackling never fails to take the breath away.
To be fair to Scholes, he was not the only one. Gareth Barry got away with an unpleasant studs-up challenge that connected painfully with Luis Nani's right ankle. Barry got the ball as well but in the circumstances that looked fairly incidental. And if it can be said that Scholes operates on the edge then Nigel de Jong is right there alongside him.
The best effort of the first half was a Tevez free-kick after the second of Scholes' fouls on Milner that the United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar flicked round the post. Vidic was excellent in the centre of their defence, especially defending set-pieces. Dimitar Berbatov had a couple of eye-catching touches but the closest he got to a goal was a half-hearted volley on 57 minutes.
When Javier Hernandez stepped up to the touchline with 12 minutes left it looked like Ferguson might just be upping the ante. But it was Berbatov whom the Mexican replaced and United stuck to the same very conservative shape. For his part, Mancini changed one left-back, Jérôme Boateng, for another, Aleksandar Kolarov. Not exactly a game-changing move.
At least Mancini could say that he did not lose to United, which is more than many of his predecessors at the club could claim. But City have changed. The blue moon is rising, as they are fond of saying in these parts, and with it comes a very different set of expectations to those that would settle for a goalless draw with the old enemy.
Manchester City (4-3-3): Hart; Boateng (Kolarov, 80), K Touré, Kompany, Zabaleta; Y Touré, De Jong, Barry; Milner (A Johnson, 72), Tevez (Adebayor, 89), Silva. Substitutes not used Given (gk), Richards, Lescott, Vieira.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; R da Silva (Brown, 49), Ferdinand,Vidic, Evra (O'Shea, 68); Nani, Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes, Park; Berbatov (Hernandez, 78). Substitutes not used Amos (gk), Smalling, Obertan, Gibson.
Referee C Foy (Merseyside).
Man of the match Vidic.
Match rating 4/10.Reuse content