Amid the criticism of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side this season the wily 69-year-old Scot is too infrequently given due credit for his tactical accumen. Given the limited nature of his side – lacking the “stardust” of previous incarnations – Ferguson has very effectively built an obdurate team on the European stage. Just nine goals in the past nine Champions League outings away from home tell the story of Manchester United’s defensive approach in Europe. Eight wins in the past 10 games paint another picture altogether.
This is far from a vintage United outfit; Darron Gibson again proved that he is no Paul Scholes, and Michael Carrick is not a patch on Roy Keane, while Dimitar Berbatov once again disappeared into his shell on the ‘big’ occasion.
Yet, Ferguson’s side justifiably remains favourite to progress to a fifth Champions League quarter-final in a row after securing a goaless draw in Marseille last night. After all, United has won 17 of 20 matches at home this season.
The story of United’s stoic approach, which borders on the Mourinho-esque at times, was familiar in southern France. Deploying five in midfield behind lone-runner Berbatov, United limited Marseille to a handful of half chances in a match that rarely rose above the mundane.
The draw leaves Ferguson’s side in pole position to progress though, albeit with a warning: should Marseille secure an away goal at Old Trafford, United must score twice to progress. Real Madrid and Monaco have each knocked out Ferguson’s outfit in recent memory after goaless away draws.
“A goal away from home is important. We didn’t do that, that’s a disappointment for me,” said the United manager.
“At this stage of the competition, away goals count. But you have to say at home we have a good chance.”
“Our passing wasn’t as good as it normally is. Marseille made sure they weren’t going to lose a goal. They’re very strong defensively, a very powerful team. They didn’t pose many problems for us. Nothing really happened to be honest and I don’t think it was a good match to watch.”
Ferguson’s sole surprise selection came in Irishman Gibson, picked ahead of Scholes in an otherwise familiar away-day line-up. Wayne Rooney, again shunted to the left-wing, and Nani were deployed in support of Berbatov. Behind, Gibson was handed the sole attacking role from central midfield, with Darren Fletcher and Carrick forming a near impenetrable barrier in front of United’s back four.
The approach left little room for Marseille to work, with Didier Deschamps side hardly aided with recent injuries to key attacking players Mathieu Valbuena and André-Pierre Gignac. In truth though, Deschamps outfit was rarely more adventurous than the visitors, seemingly affraid of being caught on the break and frequently hitting aimless long balls.
Indeed, United started the brightest, with Fletcher forcing a save from Steve Mandana in the Marseille goal. It was perhaps the only serious effort on target during a cagey opening period. United’s passing, which was ragged at times, hardly helped, while the game’s pace rarely increased above a casual jog.
In a second half of few chances, former Red Gabriel Heinze nodded off the line on the hour as Nani threatened to score, while Edouard Cisse’s shot was deflected to André Ayew, who shot across goal. Rooney was then dragged down late in the match when breaking clear only for referee Felix Brych to wave away the protests.
But it would be churlish to point at officialdom even if a red card was the appropriate decision for the foul. In truth, neither side did enough to win a dull encounter.
Yet there are many positives, with Patrice Evra riding out the inevitable hostility from the local crowd. The former Monaco player has been wideley scapegoated by French officials and media for his role in France’s poor World Cup and the supposed ‘strike’.
Moreover, Chris Smalling, chosen with Rio Ferdinand still injured, against demonstrated his huge potential. The 20-year-old impressed with his defensive concentration and composure, earning praise from Ferguson for his “tremendous display”.
“You always worry, at this stage of the season, because it’s always good teams you face,” added the Scot.
“We should have one or two players back, as will they, but we can’t take anything for granted and we won’t be doing that. Monaco was 14 years ago, but with any 0-0 at this stage, you know that away goals count.
“But you have to say that Manchester United at home, we have a good chance. I don’t care if it’s 10-9.”
In truth there’s little to suggest Marseille will change its approach in Manchester. United must take the initiative though; whether Ferguson is bold – or perhaps reckless – enough to do so by deploying two strikers at Old Trafford is another question altogether.
Marseille - 433 – Mandana; Kabore, Diawara, Fanni, Heinze; Edouard Cisse (Cheyrou 70), M’bia, Gonzalez; Brandao, Remy (Valbuena 79), Ayew.
United – 451 – Van der Sar; O’Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Gibson (Scholes 72), Fletcher, Rooney; Berbatov.
Attendance – 58,000
Man of the Match – Smalling
Possession: Marseille 39% – 61% United
Attempts: 9 – 7
On Target: 6 – 5
Corners: 5 – 2
Fouls: 6 – 12