Didier Deschamps said before the start of this Champions League match that this Manchester United side lacks “fantasy”, and his view was proved correct as Sir Alex Ferguson’s laboured to a 0-0 draw at the Stade Velodrome. As they have been for a large part of the season United were competent and experienced but unimaginative. Marseille for their part, unbeaten since early December, enjoyed a dominant second half but failed to capitalise and now need a result at Old Trafford.
The first half saw both defences well on top with the exception of the battle between Luis Nani and Gabriel Heinze. Nani tormented the former United left-back before the break and was easily the most likely player to make something happen. But after half time Heinze stuck much closer to his man which plugged the game’s most creative outlet.
Both Ferguson and Deschamps believe in playing expansive games when in possession and the game was characterised by wingers but unfortunately none managed to impose themselves. Jordan Ayew and Loic Remy both showed flashes of their abundant ability without consistently threatening while Wayne Rooney put in an excellent defensive shift but looked ineffectual as a left winger. Towards the latter stages Rooney moved centrally and was given more license to roam, which resulted in him being controversially hauled down minutes before the end. Ferguson stated Marseille “were
Sadly, this was not a classic European encounter and the highlights reel after the game consisted of showing how well Chris Smalling coped with stepping up to the Champions League. The former Fulham defender was in very impressive form alongside Nemanja Vidic but it must be said that Brandao never really offered the threat that the injured Andre-Pierre Gignac carries. Ferguson’s tactical approach away from home in Europe has been to form a solid defensive platform based on two holding players sitting in front of the centre-backs and counter-attacking when possible. The first part worked as planned but the inclusion of Dimitar Berbatov meant that United did not have the pace to break as they have previously.
Marseille may feel hard done by to only come away with a draw, despite underperforming in the first half. Deschamps’ side upped the tempo in the second period and United struggled to respond until the introduction of Paul Scholes. Lucho Gonzalez has been very influential for the French champions this season and was at the heart of all their best moves, but could not find space away from Gibson, Fletcher and Carrick to truly dictate the game.
Neither side should feel particularly negative about this result, especially because both were missing key first team players. The second leg at Old Trafford will see the English side as favourites due to their magnificent home form but of all the last 16 ties in Europe, none are quite as finely balanced as this. An unremarkable game in France has nevertheless set up an intriguing second leg in three weeks time.