The first Manchester derby without fans in attendance and many will be relieved they were not around to see it.
Even without any supporters present, this 183rd meeting between Manchester United and Manchester City was an eagerly anticipated occasion. The two were neck-and-neck in the Premier League table. Each had strengths to exploit the other’s flaws. Both were looking to light a fire under their indifferent starts to the season. And yet together, they could only produce a dour goalless stalemate.
Neither side deserved anything more than the measly point they took, though it is a point that both managers will happily accept.
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he has avoided a defeat which would only have intensified the scrutiny on him after United exited the Champions League at the group stages in midweek. Solskjaer has demonstrated a knack for getting a big result in these moments, when the world has turned against him and he most needs one. This was by no means a big result but relieves pressure all the same.
Pep Guardiola is likely to be the more disappointed of the two given City’s ambitions of reclaiming the Premier League title. This draw will leave last season’s deposed champions potentially eight points off the pace once all is said and done this weekend. Even so, the title-winning standard is not set as high as in previous years and in the grand scheme of things, to take a point from Old Trafford is a useful one.
City are a somewhat different proposition this season, more conservative than in previous years and some way off their effervescent best in attack. It took Guardiola’s players twenty minutes to produce a shot on goal, with Raheem Sterling’s effort after a mazy dribble blocked. In fact, United edged the first half, forcing Guardiola’s players to make errors with their intensity off-the-ball and even dominating in possession at times.
This was not the simple ‘sit deep and break at speed’ approach which brought Solskjaer great success against Guardiola last season - when United won three of four Manchester derbies in all competitions - but clear-cut chances were still hard to come by. Their best fell to Scott McTominay, who failed to make a true connection when free at the far post after Luke Shaw’s corner was flicked on by Victor Lindelof.
But even with United on top, City went closest to scoring. Gabriel Jesus could have done better when spooning a first-time shot on Riyad Mahrez’s ball over the top into the empty Stretford End. Mahrez then ended one rapier-like City transition from defence into attack by firing straight into David de Gea. Kevin De Bruyne’s attempt on the rebound cleared the crossbar.
If the first half was poor, the second was worse. Marcus Rashford briefly thought he had won a penalty from one burst forward at the start of the second half. Kyle Walker’s tackle - clipping Rashford’s toes as he poked in the general direction of the ball - was a certain foul but the City right-back would be reprieved by VAR. Rashford’s long strides while breaking forward had him in an offside position.
That was all that United really offered after the break, not that City did much better. Jesus’ smart movement behind the defensive line caught every United defender off guard and his square pass presented De Bruyne with a golden opportunity inside the penalty area, but Harry Maguire was on hand at the crucial moment to block a strike destined for De Gea’s bottom left-hand corner.
Aside from a few late efforts by Bruno Fernandes to finally impose himself on the occasion - with a pair of long-range strikes which were off-target - that was the long and short of it. By the time of March’s return fixture at the Etihad, Manchester may have finally emerged out of the government’s harshest coronavirus restrictions and supporters will hopefully be able to watch the 184th derby. The 183rd? They didn’t miss much.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies