David Moyes marked his first home game in charge of United with the bold selection of Rooney against a club that has twice lodged unsuccessful offers to sign the England striker this summer.
That selection added extra spice to a game that is always eagerly anticipated but, despite a standout performance from Rooney in his first start of the season, neither team created a clear-cut chance in a disappointing stalemate at Old Trafford.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho opted surprisingly to start with no recognized striker, only bringing on Fernando Torres after the 60 minutes, and was happy to leave with a point that keeps his team unbeaten after three matches in his second spell in charge. Chelsea is top of the early standings on seven points.
"I think for us, after two home victories, to come to the champions in their first match at home and get a point, I think it's fine, it's positive," Mourinho said.
Continuing the traditions of his predecessor Alex Ferguson, Moyes fielded an attacking lineup that contained three strikers — including Rooney — but his team lacked the attacking spark that lifted it to a season-opening 4-1 win at Swansea last weekend.
Danny Welbeck wasted the home side's best chance, scooping over from 10 yards out in the second half, but United found Chelsea centre backs John Terry and Gary Cahill an impenetrable barrier. It was United's first 0-0 league draw at Old Trafford since 2009.
"I thought if anyone created the chances, it was us," Moyes said. "It was a tight game and we just didn't have the final cross or the final pass tonight. But I thought we played very well."
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Mourinho in the technical area and opposite an overbearing stand bearing Ferguson's name, Moyes was given yet more indications of the size of his daunting task at United.
His decision to start with Rooney, however, showed he will be his own man at United and he was treated to an impressive display from a striker who was serenaded with chants from both sets of fans.
While United supporters belted out "Rooney, Rooney" throughout, Chelsea's travelling contingent replied with: "We'll see you next week" and "Sign him up."
It must have been a strange evening for Rooney, who indicated to United toward the end of last season that he wanted to leave and has been relentlessly — and openly — pursued by Mourinho. He coped well, though.
Neat and tidy throughout in his role behind Robin van Persie, he linked up play well, tracked back, showed a good range of passing and had two shots saved by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech. In the final moments, Rooney attempted a bicycle kick from eight yards out but he failed to connect.
"He's been great in training and anybody who was watching might have seen a slightly leaner-looking Wayne," Moyes said. "I thought he worked back, he tackled, he chased ... I think Wayne has a positive mind at the moment.
"I think his performance tonight said enough."
Robin van Persie has replaced Rooney as the leading striker at United but he had a quiet night up against Terry and Cahill, with a 23rd-minute shot into the side-netting the Dutchman's only real chance.
At the other end, Oscar had two low efforts easily saved by United goalkeeper David de Gea in the first half but Chelsea's counter-attacks were sporadic and ineffective.
Despite fielding a plethora of playmakers and attacking midfielders, Mourinho — strongly linked with the United job before Moyes replaced Alex Ferguson — tellingly chose not to start Juan Mata, who has been linked with a move away from Stamford Bridge.
The Spain international — one of the league's top performers last season — was on the bench with compatriot Torres, who was introduced on the hour to finally give Chelsea an attacking outlet. But it was United looking slightly more dangerous, Welbeck scooping over the bar when well-placed after receiving Rooney's disguised pass.
Errors remained frequent, though. One five-second passage of play summed the game up, when Torres passed straight to Patrice Evra, who then slid the ball out of play trying to find Van Persie.
In one of the many subplots surrounding the game, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand played against each other for the first time since Terry allegedly racially abused Ferdinand's brother, Anton, in a league match in October 2011. The pair shook hands before kickoff.