This will be the game's longest season - it ends in 50 weekends' time - and there can be no clearer indictment of football's over-proliferation than the absence from Wembley of David Beckham.
The 21-year-old Manchester United midfielder, who announced his arrival with a starring performance in last year's Shield, will be listed as missing, presumed knackered. As well as tomorrow's match with Chelsea, he may also be rested for the opening Premiership rounds.
"You have to take the long-term view with young players," said Alex Ferguson, the United manager, who admitted he had not wanted either Beckham or Gary Neville to play in the summer's Tournoi de France.
"My original decision to rest them was correct," he added. "They know how concerned I was about them playing in France. Gary admitted to me he was feeling very tired before he went. I have to play him at Wembley because of our injury problems at central defence, but it is different in midfield. I can add Beckham when I feel the time is right, maybe in three or four weeks' time." This would leave Beckham only two matches to prove his form and fitness before England's World Cup qualifier against Moldova on 10 September.
"We did the right thing with David when we gave him a rest in December," Ferguson added. "Then, at the end of the season, I thought he was feeling the pace, and starting to plod a bit. The willingness was there but the sharpness had gone. He is still maturing physically."
Beckham's display when moved to central midfield in last year's Charity Shield was one of several harbingers of the season which followed. Manchester United's 4-0 dissection of Newcastle a year ago may not have seemed a reliable indicator when the Magpies gained five-fold revenge in October but, by May, those early impressions proved accurate. The champions' hunger, so evident at Wembley, had earned them another title while Newcastle's defensive frailty had brought Kevin Keegan down.
Two aspects of tomorrow's encounter will be watched for future significance. How will Manchester United fare without Eric Cantona? How good will the team spirit be in Chelsea's vast, cosmopolitan squad?
"Everyone is aware what a marvellous footballer Eric is," said Mark Hughes, Cantona's former United striking partner, yesterday. Hughes, who is now at Chelsea, added: "His personality will also be missed but the other players will have learned a lot from being around him and they should be strong enough to cope.
"Teddy [Sheringham] is a quality player, used to big games and stages. Players have struggled to deal with the aura of United in the past, but I don't think that will be a problem for Teddy."
Last year, despite problems with native players like John Spencer and imports such as Gianluca Vialli, Ruud Gullit built an impressive spirit at Chelsea, as the prolonged FA Cup final celebrations showed. He will need to retain that if Chelsea are going to achieve the consistency required to match United on a daily basis.
"If I am consistent with players, it is OK," Gullit said yesterday. "Everyone has a chance, if they play well they will be in the team. Players need to understand that and be honest with themselves. There are always some who do not agree and they take the easy way out and get out. That has happened."
Two important signings, Gustavo Poyet, a Uruguayan midfielder, and Ed de Goey, the Netherlands' reserve goalkeeper, start tomorrow but Celestine Babayaro and Bernard Lambourde are injured. The fifth close-season signing, Tore Andre Flo, flies in from Norway tomorrow and is unlikely to play. Also out are Eddie Newton, Andy Myers, Dimitri Kharin, David Lee and Mike Duberry.
United have Gary Pallister fit but David May and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are injured. The Chilean trialist Dante Poli is unlikely to be asked to make the transition from Dean Court, Bournemouth, where he played last night, to Wembley. "It wouldn't be fair on him," Ferguson said. Jordi Cruyff may partner Sheringham, rather than Andy Cole.
A sell-out crowd will pay almost pounds 2m, a third of which will go to charities such as the Alzheimer's Disease Society and the RAF Benevolent Fund. One beneficiary will be the Bobby Moore Imperial Research Cancer Fund, which was set up to fight bowel cancer after the former England captain died of the disease.Reuse content