Manchester giants lacking in quality after drab derby draw
Man United 0-0 Man City
The solitary moment befitting this occasion came when only seven minutes remained: a beautiful, clipped pass from Anthony Martial which Jesse Lingard, a substitute growing in stature at Manchester United, rose to lift on to the crossbar, with all defenders lost and out of sight.
It was the briefest, thrilling hint of why the 19-year-old French player has allowed United to begin to think they can believe again, yet one which had frustration attached.
Nowhere in Louis van Gaal's analysis of why United mustered only one shot on goal was there an admission that Martial, the ideal spear for United's attack, had been consigned to the margins because of a misplaced faith in Wayne Rooney.
Instead, the long-haul flight from a Champions League date in Moscow and Van Gaal's own misplaced sense of injustice both featured.
The evidence that City feared Martial was right there. Two of their three first-half bookings were incurred by players - Vincent Kompany and Fernandinho - who hacked him down.
Yet Rooney led the line, and there was no more graphic paradigm of how much he was labouring than the 71st-minute moment when Lingard located him on the right side of the United box.
He shipped the ball square, into nowhere, when the trigger reaction you had expected was a drive towards goal.
The spotlight was all the fiercer because Van Gaal had put him up there.
Rooney has made fools of too many doubters for any to suggest that the striker in him is history, but the very least to be said is that the man is struggling.
City's own weapons were blunt, too. Raheem Sterling, removed after 55 minutes, was a shadow of his best and Kevin De Bruyne was overwhelmed by an occasion which an impressive Marcos Rojo cut him out of.
You wondered why Manuel Pellegrini had not taken a look at a team-sheet and viewed Van Gaal's puzzling choice of Antonio Valencia, at Matteo Darmian's expense, as an opportunity for Sterling to exploit.
Much of City's work came down Rojo's flank instead. Wilfried Bony offered nothing to fear. Sergio Aguero's hamstring lay-off proved significant.
For all that, the result will satisfy both sides - not losing being considerably more significant than not winning.
It is a curious time for these clubs - both harbouring high hopes of the months to come, yet neither knowing if they will find the consistency to achieve something.
It was the supporters who suffered. When neither goalkeeper had been gainfully employed at half time - not a solitary shot on goal in that period - Opta scoured their 19 years of data for a precedent across one half of an Old Trafford home game. None.
At the end, Pellegrini looked the more satisfied and he did not deny Van Gaal's inference that he had travelled across the city with no more ambition than to dig in.
His side go back to the top of the Premier League, though with no great sense of security or superiority. The recall of Kompany need not have occupied so much pre-match conjecture.
The Belgian commanded his box and dominated Rooney, offering a strong riposte to the questions Pellegrini had raised by dropping him.
It is one of those occasions when defensive quality should be given its dues. Nicolas Otamendi impressed for City, too. Chris Smalling's positioning was excellent, even though his distribution is distinctly mixed.
United argued bitterly that Sterling had tripped Ander Herrera as he went to challenge him on the edge of his own box. The complaint, which Van Gaal later picked up, was dubious.
Herrera seemed to be looking for the foul. Penalty claims about Otamendi's challenge on Rooney, four minutes from time, were equally thin. When Sterling had gone, De Bruyne was switched to the left flank to challenge Valencia, though to no effect.
A full 82 minutes had elapsed when a goalkeeper was put to work. City substitute Jesus Navas' shot bounced before landing at the feet of David de Gea.
Martial tried to create something. The plaintive look on his face when he took the ball past Bacary Sagna, 15 minutes from time, but ran it out over the dead ball line, said much.
But United began to come closer. Smalling's header from Mata's corner was sent wide before Joe Hart made a save late on.
Spoils shared. Nothing to fear this morning. But both sides will need to find better to claim the honours that matter, somewhere down the track.
MAN UTD: de Gea, A Valencia (Darmian 81), Jones, Smalling, Rojo, Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger (Fellaini 75), Mata (Lingard 67), Herrera, Martial, Rooney
Subs not used: Depay, Carrick, Blind, Romero
Booked: Schneiderlin, Mata
MAN CITY: Hart, Sagna, Kompany, Otamendi, Kolarov, Fernando, Fernandinho, De Bruyne, Y Touré (Demichelis 77), Sterling (Jesús Navas 55), Bony (Iheanacho 83)
Subs not used: Zabaleta, Caballero, Mangala, Roberts
Booked: Kompany, Fernandinho
Match rating: 6/10
Man of match: Marcos Rojo
Referee: Mark Clattenburg