The Community Shield is always more of a puzzle than a prize. It offers a teasing view of two leading clubs and dares everyone to predict the season ahead. Though Sir Alex Ferguson is too wise to peer into that distant future, he must be looking uneasily at the next few weeks at least.
The Manchester United manager might have wished he had not belittled Arsenal's unbeaten run to the Premiership title with the claim that it was not real "championship form" since it included a dozen draws. There were no equivocal traits in the Highbury side's display at the Millennium Stadium yesterday and this could easily have turned into a rout.
But United are not automatically consigned to the ranks of also-rans. Ferguson knows that Rio Ferdinand, Gabriel Heinze, Cristiano Ronaldo, Louis Saha, Wes Brown and Ruud van Nistelrooy will all be back over the next month or two, but there will only be qualified reassurance in that if the club sustains serious damage in the meantime.
Worse still, United are under particular pressure to be in good form immediately and this afternoon in Cardiff was the ante-room to their Champions League qualifier in Bucharest on Wednesday. If the side continues to be so full of gaps in defence and short of flair in attack that tie could even be problematic.
United, for the moment, are like a medical dictionary. To observe the club is to see a full list of contemporary football ailments. Some are injured, a couple are off on international duties and the occasional player here, such as Gary Neville, is experiencing the after-shock of a major international tournament.
It may not last, but Arsenal were a contrasting illustration of all that can go right for a manager. Even Vieira should find it hard to tear himself away.
The gathering fear that the Community Shield is fast becoming a fringe event was highlighted yesterday by a banner proclaiming the presence of "Edinburgh Festival Reds" in the Manchester United end. Yet despite the 10,000 empty seats, the annual dress rehearsal for the Premiership pageant still managed to construct some significant story-lines, most notably for Arsenal.
Missing too many class acts, United will be hoping that it is all right on the night when they visit Dinamo Bucharest on Wednesday for the first leg of their Champions League qualifier. Ferguson is currently without 10 players, including important strikers like Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha, so he was understandably delighted with Alan Smith's diligence and movement all across the front line.
Smith even struck an outstanding goal, exploiting defensive mistakes by Pascal Cygan and Kolo Toure to break through and despatch a dipping volley in over Jens Lehmann. Smith's display was a real plus for Ferguson, the former Leeds United man working the channels well, slipping out wide to clip in crosses or taking up prominent positions down the middle to offer United a target.
Playing the biggest game of his fledgling United career so far, the former Leeds striker was forced to try to fashion something meaningful in the Millennium Stadium at the sharp end of a side who often looked ponderous going forward.
He isn't particularly quick by today's standards, his size prevents real domination in the air (though he jumps very well), his technique is sound without approaching the level of, say, Paul Scholes, while his goals-to-game ratio, so far at least, is nothing to write home about.
A jack of all trades, then, but a master of none? Well, no, that is probably a bit harsh for a player appreciated by all of his team-mates. His new manager, for one, is eager to dish out the compliments.
To judge from the quality Arsenal's reserve players showed in Cardiff yesterday they look a good bet for the Carling Cup. It was difficult to read much more into a lively Community Shield and not just because the event's winners have not gone on to be champions since 1996.
Arsenal are clearly further ahead in their pre-season preparation than their perennial rivals, and United's increasingly ragged defending should concern Sir Alex Ferguson, with a Champions' League qualifier to play in Bucharest on Wednesday. However, when the Premiership begins on Saturday both teams will be much more recognisable.
Yesterday each fielded makeshift XIs with Cesc Fabregas and David Bellion the most surprising inclusions. Fabregas, a 17-year-old Spaniard previously with Barcelona, may have become Arsenal's youngest goalscorer last season when he was on target in a Carling Cup tie but few supporters would recognise him. Bellion is better known, but did nothing last season to suggest United's poaching of him from Sunderland was worth the acrimony.
The French winger was again utterly anonymous, but Fabregas exemplified Arsenal's greater verve with an impressive game. Showing a composure and touch which belied his youth, Fabregas fully deserved the ovation he was given when substituted.
With Edu away on international duty, Fabregas may keep his place in the short term as Arsenal attempt to beat Nottingham Forest’s run of 42 league matches unbeaten with games against Everton (away), Middlesbrough (home) and Blackburn Rovers (home) between them and yet another record.
Their 50th, if they can last that long, would be a trip to Old Trafford in late October where they would expect to meet a United side with half a dozen changes from the one that wobbled badly in Cardiff for all but 20 minutes either side of the interval. Sir Alex Ferguson was missing as many as ten first-team players and, of those who were available, he had to balance their fitness requirements with the importance of the Champions League qualifying match against Dynamo Bucharest on Wednesday.
Resources are so stretched that Ferguson was forced to deploy David Bellion on the right wing where he is no more a United player there than he is at centre forward. When Alan Smith put United level in the 55th minute, responding to Gilberto’s opener with a wonderful 25-yard drive, Bellion was in an offside position but deemed to be neither active or interfering. No change there, then.
Smith’s fine finish after confusion between Kolo Touré and Pascal Cygan brought a brief spasm of pleasure for United fans who have seen their team lose plenty of Community Shields and still go on to win the title but, nevertheless, will not have enjoyed Arsenal’s clear dominance. Wenger’s men could have had more than the goals from Gilberto, Reyes and Silvestre, the last of those deflecting the ball into his own net after an adventurous break from Ashley Cole.
Even if Ferguson has reasons to be confident that his team will improve on last year, it was probably not the best day for him to be claiming that Arsenal’s unbeaten season "wasn’t championship form because 12 draws is just too many". Wenger could have responded by claiming that nine defeats was too many for United but, with last season already consigned to the past, he declined the open goal.