Villarreal CF were no respecters of reputations when they reached the UEFA Champions League semi-finals as tournament novices in 2006 and they started their second campaign in exactly the same fashion by frustrating holders Manchester United FC 0-0 at Old Trafford.
Manuel Pellegrini's visitors might even have won this Group E opener had Guille Franco's second-half shot gone in off the post, although United could point to Jonny Evans's late header against the woodwork. As it was, we got history repeating itself between two teams who played out two stalemates in their 2005/06 section. For United that campaign ended with a premature group-stage exit so Sir Alex Ferguson will be keen for the parallels to finish there. At least he was able to welcome back Cristiano Ronaldo for his first appearance since last May's final, as a second-half substitute.
One hundred and 19 days since the joy of their third European title triumph in Moscow, United set out on the long road to Rome showing notable changes from last weekend's defeat at Liverpool FC. In came Gary Neville for his 100th appearance in the competition and 20-year-old central defender Evans for only his third; out went the injured Dimitar Berbatov. Neville, still regaining his form after long-term injury, showed signs of ring rust and he was not alone, with United struggling to find their stride so far this term. Yet while lacking fluency, they still asked questions of the visiting defence.
There was an early opportunity for Rio Ferdinand, who appeared surprised when Villarreal goalkeeper Diego López failed to deal with Owen Hargreaves's corner and stabbed the loose ball across the five-metre box. Nani cut a busy figure in the opening period, nearly embarrassing López with one shot from distance and later embarking on a break from the centre circle before feeding Ji-Sung Park who was foiled by Joan Capdevila's challenge. United's pressure was building and after Edmílson had deflected Park's effort behind, Carlos Tévez drew a fine full-stretch save from López with the half-hour approaching.
Villarreal coach Pellegrini had left Spanish international pair Santi Cazorla and Marcos Senna among his substitutes but there was a first start of the campaign for Robert Pirès – his first UEFA Champions League outing since the 2006 final with Arsenal FC – and the Frenchman was the only Villarreal player to test Edwin van der Sar in the first half, firing in low at the near post for the Dutchman to save. Villarreal were a whisker away from scoring on the hour, though, when Pirès released Ángel López down the right and Franco met his cross with a flick that beat Van der Sar but rebounded back off the inside of the far post.
That was the cue for Ronaldo's entrance, prompting a huge roar inside Old Trafford. He drove one shot into the ground and up for López to save, then directed a far-post header wide. The Ronaldo-Rooney-Tévez triumvirate then clicked into gear for the first time this season after 72 minutes, with Ronaldo sending Rooney clear through the inside-left channel and the England forward squaring to Tévez, whose shot beat López but not Gonzalo Rodríguez on the goalline. Evans then thumped a point-blank header against the far post to ensure United's first home shutout in Europe since Villarreal were last in town.