Sir Alex Ferguson must do without injured quintet Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, Jonny Evans, Michael Owen and Anderson for Manchester United’s match with Marseille at Stade Vélodrome tonight. The 69-year-old Scot is also without long-term injured pair Owen Hargreaves and Antonio Valencia for the Round of 16 Champions League tie with the French League 1 winners.
The rash of injuries, together with Marseille’s improving recent form, make for a challenging away tie. That United has scored just nine times in the club’s last eight Champions League matches away from Old Trafford is instructive of Ferguson’s seemingly negative approach to these games, although it’s an outlook that works: the Reds have won nine of the last 10 European games on the road.
Indeed, Ferguson is almost certain to retain the 4-5-1 shape the Scot adopted against non-League Crawley Town at the weekend, with either Wayne Rooney or Dimitar Berbatov spearheading United’s attack.
The match marks the first of four away trips in a row that are likely to define United’s season. Next weekend United go to Wigan Athletic, followed by trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge in March.
“We have an important few weeks coming, there is no question about that,” said Ferguson.
“We are just starting four away games on the run, which is a great challenge for us. They are all fantastic matches but it is a time we should enjoy. They are big games and in that situation, the players don’t let us down often.”
Still, with the Champions League of primary focus Ferguson is confident that United can progress, despite the passionate atmosphere that awaits United in France.
“The Champions League this season is very open. There are a number of teams that can win it. The opportunity is there for anyone in the last 16,” added the Scot.
“But tomorrow [Wednesday] is when the competition really starts for us. They’re a very powerful team, very athletic, strong defenders.
“Marseille isn’t the easiest place to get a result. There is an atmosphere, an emotion at the Stade Vélodrome that is unique. I’ve often been to matches here and the fans have a genuine power over their players.”
With Ferdinand remaining on the sidelines and Evans suffering with an ankle problem, Chris Smalling is likely to partner Nemanja Vidic at the heart of United’s back-four. Rafael and Fabio da Silva will also be available despite coming off against Crawley last weekend.
Aside from United’s defensive combination, Ferguson must also choose between top-goalscorer Berbatov and Rooney to lead the forward line. History suggests the Scot will deploy Rooney in a loose left-side role, with Nani on United’s right and Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes anchoring the midfield.
The match will also reunite the Reds with Argentinian defender Gabriel Heinze who left Old Trafford in 2007 following a much-publicised fallout with Ferguson. Heinze joined Marseille two years ago following a spell at Real Madrid.
“It wasn’t easy at first with him being a former Paris Saint-Germain player. There is a big rivalry with Marseille,” said United’s French full-back Patrice Evra, who replaced Heinze at Old Trafford.
“I am happy to see him doing well and he will get a big ovation when he comes back to Old Trafford because he played so well for United.”
Meanwhile, Marseille could be without a trio of forwards, with Andre-Pierre Gignac out for a fortnight, and Loic Remy and Brandao facing late fitness tests. César Azpilicueta will miss the rest of the season with a ruptured knee ligament.
But Didier Deschamps side is in improving form, having begun the season in an inconsistent vein. Now three points adrift of surprise leaders Lille, L’OM has won five of its last six fixtures.
“I’ve watched some of their games this season and you can see they are a good team and they have a great manager in Didier Deschamps, who was my coach at Monaco,” said Evra.
“He is not afraid of any team and I know he will get his players motivated before the game so they play with no fear. It’s a dangerous game for us because we are favourites so in a way Marseille have nothing to lose.”
It was also the case in 1999 when the sides last met. United, then European Champions, lost 1-0 in France.
Marseille – 433 – Mandanda; Kaboré, Diawara, Heinze, Taiwo; González, Cissé, Valbuena; Rémy, Brandão, André Ayew. Subs from: Jordan Ayew, Cheyrou, Andrade, Mango, N’Diaye, Fanni, Sabo, Lowinsky, Kaboré, Abriel, Moulet Abbes.
United – 451 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Fletcher, Carrick, Rooney; Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Brown, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Fabio da Silva, O’Shea, Obertan, Hernández, Tunnicliffe, King.
Referee: Felix Brych (GER)
Assistant referees: Thorsten Schiffner (GER), Mark Borsch (GER)
Additional assistant referees: Peter Sippel (GER), Babak Rafati (GER)
Fourth official: Knut Kircher (GER)
Marseille – WWDWWW
United – WWWLWW