The FA Community Shield, the annual curtain raiser to the English season, is billed as a friendly.
I’m thinking that it wasn’t mentioned to Paul Scholes, who was at his industrial best, scything down Florent Malouda in the opening minutes of a rivalry that now defines domestic football in England.
In all honesty though, can a match between Manchester United and Chelsea ever be called a friendly?
With Wembley bathed in glorious August sunshine and the pitch, for once, immaculate, this edition of the Shield proved to be one of the most entertaining encounters I’ve witnessed in years.
Space, which is usually at a premium, was evident from top to bottom. Whether that was early season rust or the fact that each team had a different tactical system, will be debated endlessly.
Sir Alex Ferguson started with a 4-4-2, while the Blues began with Carlo Ancelotti’s favored 4-3-3. This allowed for a tremendous ebb and flow, with chances available at both ends of the hallowed turf in the first 45 minutes.
Like most things in football, it was simplicity that created the opening goal for Antonio Valencia. The ageless Scholes still has very few peers when it comes to playing long diagonal passes because he understands the concept of pace and weight. His left-to-right pass landed like a butterfly, giving Wayne Rooney (who’s intelligent run had bought him the extra yard) the time to whip in a first time ball. It would’ve been harder for Valencia to miss.
The second period, much to my surprise, was decidedly one sided in terms of possession and chances manufactured though. It’s not often that United deliberately set out their stall as a counter-attacking outfit but that’s what we witnessed as they asked Chelsea to come and break them down.
Having lost three-on-the-bounce coming into the Community Shield, the Blues weren’t able to answer that question. The swagger of the previous Premier League campaign, where they completed the double over United, is not yet evident.
Ashley Cole, who was booed mercilessly throughout, looked as though he was still on the moonscape that is Rustenburg, South Africa. You’ve got to think that if Jose Mourinho makes any kind of bid, despite repeated denials, that the England left back will be on his way to the Santiago Bernabeau.
Chelsea skipper, John Terry seems to have lost a step when competing against anybody with more than a snails pace to their name while Frank Lampard, scorer of 22 Premier League goals last term, was completely anonymous.
And for anybody to tell you that this performance doesn’t matter you only had to glance in the direction of Ancelotti. The Italian was seething in the coaching box and wore a complexion close to that of his rival, Sir Alex, when the hair-dryer is out.
Of the Blues on display only Michael Essien, Salomon Kalou and a lively cameo by Daniel Sturridge will walk away from the national stadium with their heads held high.
Thankfully for the defending Premier League Champions they begin the defense of their crown with the weakest possible schedule. West Brom (h), Wigan (a), Stoke (h), West Ham (a), Blackpool (h) before a real test away to Manchester City in late September.
In theory, this should give Ancelotti plenty of time to work out the kinks and have the Blues mixing it up at the top of the table.
On this display the upper echelons of that table will also be graced by United. Scholes who was rightly named the man-of-the-match was almost in a class of his own. Sure, his tackling is still shocking but one can’t but overlook that when watching a football genius at work. If he plays 30+ matches in the Premiership with the guile and craft he showed in 75+ minutes, you can give the title to United now. That’s how good he is.
In goal, Edwin van der Sar showed us exactly why the Dutch wanted him in South Africa. His reflexes were as sharp as ever and talking of sharp, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernadez made the dream debut scoring a spectacular fluke goal.
I know it is too early to tell but on what we’ve seen so far, his explosion onto the Red Devils’ landscape reminds me a little of Cristiano Ronaldo and his first few appearances in England.
With Dimitar Berbatov also chipping in literally, Ferguson, may have the sort of striking options he was missing last year when an over reliance on Rooney told during the run-in.
Defensively, there were some issues but on the whole, United were content to let Chelsea take optimistic pot shots. The eventual returns of Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra will surely solidify any shortcomings we saw yesterday.
Like Chelsea, the schedulers at Premier League HQ have also been relatively gentle to Ferguson’s squad. Newcastle (h), Fulham (a), West Ham (h), Everton (a) before the little matter of Liverpool at Old Trafford on September 19th.
Of course it is too early to draw any permanent conclusions but on the 90 minutes I saw, United are in need of some fine-tuning; oil change, spark plugs and tire pressure while Chelsea are looking at more of an overhaul; clutch, brakes and exhaust.
Next week it is for real and the biggest rivalry in English football will once again hold our focus.