MANCHESTER, England -- There were no goals, but plenty of laughs as two of Europe's finest comedy outfits engaged in a giggle-off at Old Trafford.
Chelsea and Manchester United's performances have reached delightful heights on their own, but observers weren't sure what might happen when the two units were brought together. Both have been reliant on slapstick to amuse their audiences to date, and there seemed to be a real risk that their styles might cancel each other out on this long-awaited night.
There was no need to fear.
The first sketch of the evening saw Chelsea's blue-clad defenders evaporate to allow a throw from the right to turn into a genuine scoring chance. It was an extraordinary display of incompetence, one which Juan Mata capped off by rattling the crossbar.
At the other end, it was United's turn to show just what they could do mere minutes later as Daley Blind executed an elaborate falling-down routine that eventually turned into a chance to pretend that John Terry still has enough flexibility to perform diving headers. David de Gea remained unmoved by the Chelsea skipper's mid-air dance moves, however, and clawed the ball off the line with some acrobatics of his own.
If the audience thought we were in for a back and forth farce, the visitors quickly proved them wrong by engaging in a superb -- perhaps we might even call it genius -- display. The Blues somehow contrived to remain permanently one step out of position, and it took an extraordinary effort for United's forwards to stop themselves from scoring. Anthony Martial came closest to breaking the deadlock, but his angled shot spun off the inside the post and squeezed inches wide.
Even the referees got in on the act, delighting the home fans by not awarding a penalty after Kurt Zouma's collision with Martial in the box. So amused was Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois by the exchange that he attempted to give his own version of a spot kick to the hosts, kicking the ball straight to Mata with the Blues defence nowhere in sight. Mata, however, was up to the challenge, spurning the counterattack with almost balletic precision.
Although the second half began with a dud -- Eden Hazard, Pedro and Cesar Azpilicueta produced something disappointingly close to real football and drew a fine double save from De Gea -- it soon progressed into an enjoyable back and forth of creatively wasted possession from United and increasingly ridiculous counterattacks from the visitors.
The lengthy sequence reached its climax when Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic, clear through on goal and with no pressure to speak of, scooped his shot well over the bar. It was a clever enough hit on its own, but the callback to Oscar's penalty miss against Watford just two days ago brought it to new heights. Even the most hardened comedy-goer would have found themselves hard-pressed to hold back a chortle.
Manchester United were not to be outdone. Ander Herrera, who recently starred in hit teenage drama I'm Really Quite Full of Emotions at the Moment, proved that his acting chops were Theatre of Dream standard when he somehow failed to score with a tap-in from Martial's disconcertingly competent cross.
The Blues' response to Herrera's outrageous miss was equally brilliant. A corner popped out to Willian, who, with no red shirt in sight, lifted the ball nonchalantly onto his left arm in full view of the referee. It was another fantastic demonstration of the way this Chelsea team calls back to previous jokes without excluding outsiders, resulting in multi-layered humour which will delight any sort of audience.
The last laugh, however, went to undisputed funnyman king Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United captain had been overshadowed by the work of his teammates and opposition for much of the match but he came into his own as the match died down, first sending a he-must-score! sidefooted volley miles over Courtois's crossbar and then producing a downright hilarious leg-breaking challenge on a man who, given his footballing nous, we had to imagine was the stunt double for Brazil international Oscar.
The sight of the referee reaching into his pocket, rummaging around, and brandishing a yellow card was a fitting conclusion to a night of intense, perverse humour. The Premier League has something intensely special in these two teams. Don't miss their next face-off at Stamford Bridge in February.