If this was to be the first instalment in a long fight for the prizes of English football, then David Moyes v Jose Mourinho Part I will not trouble the historians of our 21st century game for too long. They came, they saw, they barely had a chance worthy of the name.
Yes, it was intriguing, never more so than in the selections of both managers: Wayne Rooney in for Manchester United; Fernando Torres and Romelu Lukaku both on the bench in Mourinho’s striker-less formation. There was a good deal of the simmering resentment between these two clubs boiling to the surface in the stands but for those match-defining moments? That did not take much of our time.
Moyes made good on the promise that he would select Rooney who emerged from one of the biggest sulks in modern football history to contribute a performance that while not match-winning, showed why United can hardly let him go. He looked sharp and got stronger the longer the game went on; in fact he outshone Robin Van Persie.
As for Mourinho, he as good as said he settled for a point before the game and while United had the better chances – and that was not saying much - the way in which Chelsea restricted them, led by an outstanding performance from John Terry, was a sign of their manager’s defensive organisation. Listening to Mourinho talk about his attacking players it seemed that he selected them more on the basis of what they could do defensively.
He calls them his “kids” and he said he picked Kevin De Bruyne to shut down the attacking threat from Patrice Evra. Andre Schurrle was obliged to scurry around closing down United’s defence. Mourinho conceded that with 75 minutes played he took the decision that his side could not win the game and opted against bringing on Juan Mata for that reason.
Afterwards Moyes said that his side had simply missed “the final cross or the final pass ... the moment of individual brilliance” that might have changed the game. He was right that his side were by far the more attacking, as you might expect of a United team at home. Yet for United it was a concern that Michael Carrick was composed but there were too few really telling forward passes from either him or Tom Cleverley in central midfield.
If Rooney’s inclusion was a statement about how Moyes saw the future of one of the key players at his club then equally there was one from Mourinho on the resources at his disposal. His decision to leave both Torres and Lukaku on the bench – while Demba Ba did not even travel with the squad – was a resounding judgement on his striking options.
Mourinho has said all summer that he believes in Lukaku, whom he tried to sign at Real Madrid, even if he does not think he is ready yet. As for Torres, who came on for De Bruyne on the hour, this was another low in his ever dwindling Chelsea career. The only consolation for him is that Ba is closer to the exit door
Afterwards, Mourinho joked that Torres, should stop having his £50m transfer fee thrown at him. “If you like the numbers you have to remember he scored a goal that won the Uefa Cup [Europa League] so that means some millions. He scored a goal against Everton that puts Chelsea in the Champions League, that also means some millions. So it is not 50, maybe it is 20 now ... he did his job. I’m happy with Fernando, no problem.”
As the game opened up when legs tired there was greater potential for mistakes and it was United who offered the more. Yet it was still shots from a distance or a goalmouth scramble that saw Van Persie’s shot strike the substitute John Obi Mikel. Watching from the directors’ box, after that painful defeat to Cardiff City on Sunday, Manuel Pellegrini will not have seen anything that his Manchester City cannot live with on their good days.
As far as the intrigue went, that was happening around fringes of the game. In the first half, Mourinho waved to the United fans who goaded him, having made his entry into the stadium and then sought out both Ryan Giggs and Moyes for an embrace. The new United manager, he emerged later than the rest of his players and was treated to a warm reception from the Stretford End.
There was no doubting the warmth of the feelings from the majority of the home fans towards Rooney. In the first half he only got on the ball occasionally but he looked like the one player who might be on the same wavelength as Van Persie. On 29 minutes he took a pass from Cleverley and manoeuvred himself sharply to make room for a shot which, when it came, was weak. As the United fans began singing Rooney’s name, so too did those in the away end.
The quality, however, was low. In Mourinho’s 4-2-1-3 formation it was Andre Schurrle who had to adapt to the centre-forward’s role and, while he can cover the yards, it would be overstating the case to say that he caused United’s defence problems.
United struggled to get behind Chelsea on either wing but their biggest concern was how rarely Van Persie got the ball in promising circumstances. He managed to pick the ball up on a fast turnover of possession by United on 23 minutes and drifted left to get his shot away, but that was the wrong side of the post.
It was harder to recall a decent chance for Chelsea. Oscar had a shot on target on ten minutes and another later in the first half, neither of which caused David De Gea any problems. Martin Atkinson did his best to keep his yellow card in his pocket, excusing a challenge on Van Persie by Ashley Cole and another by Antonio Valencia on Oscar that both merited a booking. De Bruyne finally copped it for a trip on Van Persie when Atkinson felt he had no other option.
The concern for United was how few chances they created – and with a home crowd urging them to attack in the last 15 minutes they made heavy work of prising open Chelsea. One of their best chances fell to Danny Welbeck, made by Rooney’s aggression in the final third of the pitch. But when the ball was presented to the United attacker he could not keep his shot on target.
Otherwise it was very fragmented from United. Rooney looked ever stronger, sliding in to tackle Ramires on the United goalline out by the corner flag, and then emerging with the ball. He had a sharply struck shot pushed round the post by Cech with 13 minutes left. Earlier United had a debatable penalty appeal for a Frank Lampard handball rejected.
At the start of the game, Ferdinand and Terry had shaken hands – for the first time before a game since the acrimonious episode involving Ferdinad’s brother Anton. Given what was at stake in the game that was to follow it barely merited a footnote at the time. After 90 flat minutes it still feels like we are waiting for this new old rivalry, under new management, to re-ignite.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Jones, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Cleverley; Valencia, Rooney, Welbeck; Van Persie.
Substitutes not used: Anderson, Giggs, Smalling, Lindegaard (gk), Young, Kagawa, Buttner
Young/Valencia 66, Welbeck/Giggs 78
Chelsea (4-2-1-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Cole; Lampard, Ramires; Oscar; De Bruyne, Hazard, Schurrle.
De Bruyne/Torres 60, Schurrle/Mikel 87, Azpilicueta/Hazard 90
Man of the match: Terry
Booked: De Bruyne, Torres
Referee: M Atkinson