Everyone enraged by the ticket allocation system for the FA Cup final would have been appeased when they watched Chelsea and Manchester United being so energetically inept. The visitors, having won the Premiership title with such elan, saw no reason to show that quality here. Their line-up was even weaker than Chelsea's and that alone nurtures the hope that there will be a very different encounter at Wembley on May 19.
The selections will be upgraded and, with luck, so too will the calibre of the play. When a rousing passage did come here it was because the ball ricocheted around the visitors' penalty area following fumbles by the goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak. He had, all the same, made convincing saves from Lassana Diarra and Salomon Kalou.
In the end the lingering significance was of an unhappy sort. Scott Sinclair had made his first start for Chelsea and did enough to remind spectators of his virtuoso goal against Barnet while he was on loan at Plymouth. A tackle by Wes Brown, however, broke a metatarsal and the youngster has a summer of convalescence and rehabilitation ahead of him.
There ought not to have been real hurt in a fixture with no prize at stake. Jose Mourinho's spat with the referee, Graham Poll, over the award of a foul against Claude Makelele did add an authentic feel to the night for a moment or two but the truth had never really been concealed. These clubs were determined to keep something in reserve.
With so many youths and fringe players around the game was designed to have as little relation as possible to the FA Cup final. Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson must be satisfied that their intentions for Wembley have been concealed but no one else went home pleased. Only Brown, Gabriel Heinze and Alan Smith remained from the United starting XI that had chalked up what proved to be a title-winning victory over Manchester City last Saturday. Ferguson had even given a debut to the sturdy Chinese striker Dong Fangzhuo. In addition, Kieran Lee had his first Premiership appearance at right-back.
For the visiting supporters the game was just a part of their purpose in being at Stamford Bridge and not necessarily the most important element. They had come to crow, as is the entitlement of fans looking down on the club who had yielded the title. Mourinho was taunted with a chant of "You're not special any more". It has been quite a while since anyone felt confident about saying that to the Chelsea manager.
His squad had to applaud their Premiership conquerors on to the field. The plan, of course, must have been to follow that by embarrassing United in the game itself but that was not accomplished. In other countries the evening would have been given over to a vapid, technical contest. In England it comes more naturally to wrangle and save technique for another time.
The introduction of Joe Cole at the interval could have been intended to lift the quality but the next notable incident was Brown's caution for the crude tackle on Sinclair and Diarra, fouling Eagles, was cautioned for Chelsea shortly afterwards. There was a monotonous recklessness and it was not long before Eagles himself saw a yellow card for a challenge, with studs raised, on Wright-Phillips.
"That's why you're champions," the Stamford Bridge support bayed. The truth about United's means of lifting the title is the exact opposite of that but this encounter stifled the best in each side.
As few as half a dozen of last night's starters are likely to walk out at Wembley for the FA Cup Final on Saturday week and on this evidence it may be just as well.
An ugly match containing seven bookings reached a confusing climax when José Mourinho retreated temporarily to the stands after a face-to-face row with Graham Poll, the referee, in the mistaken belief that he had been sent off.
In other circumstances, Mourinho would have been infuriated by his side's failure to make their superiority tell, but he was more concerned that Scott Sinclair's full Premiership debut ended with a broken metatarsal after a late tackle from Wes Brown. Both managers will be grateful to have emerged with no suspensions for the Cup Final, Poll deserving credit for keeping a full complement on the pitch.
Mourinho is adamant that if this fixture had been played when scheduled last month, the Premiership trophy may have stayed at Stamford Bridge. He is vexed that the date was rearranged from mid-April to this late stage because both clubs were in the FA Cup semi-finals, though he stopped short of suggesting it was an FA Premier League conspiracy designed to ensure a hype-filled climax.
Having already been down-graded from a title decider to a dress rehearsal, this was a testy walk-through for a cast of understudies. Chelsea made four changes from the side that sacrificed the title away to Arsenal on Sunday, with Sir Alex Ferguson bringing in eight pairs of fresh legs and giving full Premiership debuts to Chris Eagles, Kieran Lee and Dong Fangzhuo.
United were clapped on to the pitch as promised, but that was where the pleasantries ended as a surprisingly spiteful match developed. The word friendly does not feature in Alan Smith's vocabulary and his robust style brought a drab encounter to life midway through the first half. After spending much of the season kicking his heels on the side-lines, he reverted to type by kicking his opponents, launching himself into late challenges on Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel inside a minute.
Mikel was removed at half-time with a third sending-off of the season threatening, though his withdrawal did not stop the flying tackles as Poll produced five yellow cards in the first 12 minutes of the second half. Brown received the first for ending Sinclair's evening, with Lee, Lassana Diarra and Michael Essien soon following him into the notebook, and Eagles's high challenge on Wright-Phillips sparked a flare-up involving 20 players.
The only real quality was provided by Wright-Phillips, who was doing his best to earn a walk-on part at Wembley. His right-wing cross was headed clear by Brown at the far post and his shot from the edge of the penalty area was saved by Kuszczak. Wright-Phillips also showed the subtler side of his game, playing a wonderful through-ball to Kalou, who was denied by a well-timed tackle from Darren Fletcher.
Terry and Ben Sahar, a substitute, also went close as Chelsea piled forward in added time, but the FA will hope for far more goalmouth action at Wembley.
The crowds had long since left Stamford Bridge last night when Cristiano Ronaldo sat on the turf going through his stretching exercises as Peter Kenyon made his way around the pitch. For a split second there was a moment to make every Manchester United fan's blood run cold: a cheery wave from the chief executive of Chelsea which was returned by the Portuguese winger.
It was a small reminder to the Stamford Bridge hierarchy that however much money you throw at a title race it will not always buy you the man who can decide it. Ronaldo was one of the last players Kenyon signed during his time at Old Trafford and he could hardly have left them with a better legacy in that respect. Because by the time these two sides met last night it was Ronaldo who had done most to render this game of games completely meaningless.
Ronaldo himself was not even on the bench for this bizarre post-title race encounter: a tale of sound and fury signifying nothing. Sir Alex Ferguson did not field a single player in his first XI who would be first choice if his entire squad is fit by the time he plays Chelsea again in the FA Cup final. Yet on one occasion the Manchester United manager was so incensed by events on the pitch that he ran on to remonstrate with referee Graham Poll.
It was absent of meaning but full of bad feeling although there was one milestone for Chelsea. With this draw they have equalled Liverpool's record run of 62 consecutive unbeaten home league games between February 1978 and January 1981. It is a remarkable achievement that they can surpass on Sunday against Everton, although it will be little compensation for having to applaud United on to the pitch last night as the new champions.
That too was a surreal experience, with the likes of Ryan Giggs and Ronaldo in the stands, and the best five-a-side team ever on the bench (Edwin Van der Sar, Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes). Instead the United players clapped out on to the pitch by John Terry and his team-mates included Chinese debutant Dong Fangzhuo, Kieran Lee and Chris Eagles. You could have forgiven Chelsea for not bothering.
At 22, Dong has waited a long time for his Home Office work permit, never mind his first chance at United, and on this performance he is not yet the Rooney of the Far East. For Chelsea, Scott Sinclair, 18, made his first start for the senior team and was the most impressive of the new boys but faces a summer in plaster after cracking a metatarsal bone in a challenge with Wes Brown. Before the hour was up, Poll had seven names in the book and his name was being taken in vain by both sets of supporters.
Brown clattered Sinclair, Michael Essien went into the book for throwing the ball away and then, to top it all, Eagles took his revenge for the Mikel tackle with a studs-up lunge on Wright-Phillips as it threatened to get nasty.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cudicini; Ferreira, Terry, Essien, Bridge; Diarra (Morais, 88), Makelele, Mikel (J Cole, h-t); Wright-Phillips, Kalou, Sinclair (Sahar, 55). Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Geremi.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Kuszczak; Lee, Brown, O'Shea, Heinze (Carrick, 66); Smith, Fletcher, Richardson; Eagles, Dong (Rooney, 73), Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: Van der Sar (gk), Ferdinand, Scholes.
Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).
Booked: Chelsea Mikel, Diarra, Essien; Manchester United Heinze, Lee, Brown, Eagles.