Instead, the home side bossed possession and pressed high up the pitch. Carlos Tevez's harrying made life uncomfortable for Rio Ferdinand and van der Sar on separate occasions, but it took the home side until the 36th minute to register a meaningful effort on goal.
Goalmouth action was scarce at the other end, too. Nani offered Joe Hart some friendly catching practice with a long-range free-kick, while Evra did much the same with a right-footed effort after he'd linked well with Park on the edge of the penalty area.
The game was crying out for some spark, some invention, a moment of magic that would tip the balance of power towards either red or blue. Scholes tried to unlock the City defence with a cheeky scooped pass, Tevez drew a smart save from van der Sar when his free-kick appeared destined for the top corner and Yaya Toure embarked on a run that was halted only when Vidic - once again a colossus at the heart of the Reds' defence - took command on the edge of the area. But that was as close either side came to breaking the deadlock before the interval.
Neither side made changes at half-time but with only four minutes elapsed in the second period, Rafael limped off with a dead leg. Wes Brown took his place at right-back and, after a spell of sustained United possession, crossed for Berbatov to volley acrobatically towards goal. Contact was crisp but the Bulgarian's shot flew straight at Hart. A minute later, Tevez shot tamely on target, as, for the first time, the match threatened to lurch into second gear.
Sir Alex was then forced to reshuffle his defensive deck again. Rafael, already forced from the pitch with injury, was joined on the sidelines by Patrice Evra. The Frenchman had played on after suffering an ankle knock in the first half, but the same injury brought his derby to an end on 69 minutes and he was replaced by John O'Shea.