The rain fell relentlessly from the skies over Old Trafford. It fell on the roves of the stands of the empty stadium and the monotony of its steady, heavy beat was mirrored by the predictability of a drab and dour game. This was a match that did not deserve a goal and no one on either team was able to find the inspiration to redeem it.
Maybe the result will be more pleasing for Chelsea and their boss Frank Lampard. They have been leaking goals this season so they will take satisfaction from this clean sheet and a fine performance from their new goalkeeper, Edouard Mendy, who made three fine saves to keep his team level with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side.
The last of those saves came in the 90th minute when he dived to his left to beat away a curling snap shot from Marcus Rashford. It would have been a fitting end to a week when Rashford had united the nation in his appeal for an extension to the free school meals scheme if he had scored the winner.
But this was not the type of game to indulge romantic endings. It was more inclined to heresy: Rashford was booked in the second half for a foul on Mason Mount.
The result left United stranded in 15th in the Premier League table and lifted Chelsea to sixth but both teams are struggling for fluency and belief. Chelsea spent £231million on new players in the transfer window and so there is bound to be pressure on them but their most expensive acquisition, Kai Havertz, is still some distance from anything like his best form.
United seem even further away from excelling. Fresh from their morale-boosting win over PSG in midweek, there was some expectation that they would show an improvement here and begin to put the 6-1 humbling by Spurs earlier this month behind them. This draw, though, means they have now gone five league games at Old Trafford without a win. Much more of this and Solskjaer will start to feel the heat.
Chelsea should have had a penalty in the first half when Harry Maguire gripped Cesar Azpilicueta in a headlock at a corner but VAR, in its infinite wisdom, chose not to review the incident. Its workings, sadly, become more and more mysterious by the week but frankly this was a game that neither side deserved to win.
Solskjaer’s pre-match comments did not quite qualify as a rousing call to arms but then the United boss has never pretended to be a Churchillian orator. ‘If we get three points today,’ he said, ‘we’ve got a game in hand and suddenly it’s not that bad. The league is throwing up strange results, so it’s all up for grabs and we just need to hang on in there.’ Not exactly a statement of intent.
After that, maybe it should not have been a surprise that the first half an hour should have been almost entirely lacking in incident. United seemed to leave most of their talent on the bench, which did not help. Donny van de Beek must be growing increasingly puzzled about exactly why United bought him. Paul Pogba is getting used to life as a substitute.
Reece James had a free kick in a dangerous position on the left side of the United box 17 minutes before half time but he curled it gently into the hands of David de Gea. A few minutes later, Mendy passed a ball across his own six yard box towards Thiago Silva and nearly swept it into his own net. A minute after that, Bruno Fernandes had a shot on target.
Suddenly, the game was opening up. Christian Pulisic stepped inside his marker and drilled a shot straight at De Gea. Then the US international pounced on a careless mistake by Fred midway inside the United half and advanced to the edge of the box before dragging a right-foot shot just wide of De Gea’s right hand post.
The best chance of the half, though, came at the other end. Juan Mata slid Rashford in on goal with a precise, perfectly weighed pass and Rashford took the ball to the edge of the area. Mendy came out to meet him and when Rashford tried to lash the ball past him, low to his right, Mendy stuck out his boot and deflected it wide for a corner.
It would be an exaggeration, perhaps, to say the half had sprung to life but it had at least become marginally less drab. There was, however, no change in the vagaries of VAR: Maguire gripped Azpilicueta in a headlock at a corner and there was no review. N’Golo Kante made the faintest contact with Rashford in the box and there were endless checks. Neither incident resulted in a penalty.
Five minutes before the interval, Mendy flung himself to his right to push away a curling shot by Mata. The new Chelsea keeper was probably the game’s best player in the opening 45 minutes although it was not a high bar. Both teams looked utterly devoid of conviction and confidence, more scared of losing than lost in the desire to win.
Solskjaer barely waited 10 minutes into the second half before he brought Pogba and Edinson Cavani, who was making his debut, off the bench. Mata looked crestfallen to be substituted, with some justification. Daniel James knew his number was up before he saw it on the board. He is still struggling desperately for confidence.
The changes almost paid an immediate dividends for United. They worked a short corner to Fernandes and when he clipped a ball into the near post, Cavani nearly scored with his first touch in a United shirt. The Uruguay forward got ahead of his marker and helped the ball goalwards with a deft flick of his right boot but it went just wide of De Gea’s right hand post.
Cavani looked encouragingly sharp but he was not on long enough to make much of a difference. Mendy saved well from Rashford’s curling shot as the game entered injury time before the final whistle brought an end to it all. The rain still fell.