Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Omens not good for shot-shy Manchester United

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 23: Dimitar Berbatov of Manchester United is challenged by Souleymane Diawara of Marseille during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg match between Marseille and Manchester United at the Stade Velodrome on February 23, 2011 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Marseille 0 Manchester Utd 0: Sir Alex Ferguson admitted Manchester United lacked attacking inspiration in last night’s Champions League stalemate - but felt the hosts had a lucky late escape.

Wayne Rooney appeared to be bundled over by last man Stephane M'Bia as he chased a long through-ball towards goal in the closing stages of the goalless last-16 first leg in Marseille.

And Ferguson said afterwards: "I think it was very lucky, the referee's in a good position and I don't know why he didn't give us a free-kick and then the decision is straightforward — it's a red card."

On his side's performance, the Scot added: "It was disappointing, the pitch was lively but they made sure they weren't going to lose a goal. We got in good positions but we didn't have enough.

"Nil-nil can be a dangerous scoreline if you lose a goal at home but it's about winning the game, if we win the game we're through. We're confident, I think we'll be much better."

There will certainly be an understandable shudder of apprehension through Old Trafford today when those with long enough memories recall the dangers of a goalless first leg in Europe.

Monaco in 1997 and Madrid in 2000 are two datelines lodged in Ferguson's memory bank as occasions when a first-leg deadlock had deadly Champions League consequences.

Marseille had always sensed that attrition could be the perfect strategy and Ferguson could only reflect last night on the absence of a creative spark.

“Fantasy football” from United this most certainly wasn't, as Didier Deschamps predicted, and the overwhelming impression was how far United had fallen behind last week's feats of the north London sides when their turn on the European stage finally arrived.

There will be more players back — the creative presences of Antonio Valencia and Ryan Giggs may be contenders — but Deschamps' side created enough for United to worry about the rematch.

The welcome was as unedifying as Ferguson had expected, the loud hailers blaring out from the shirtless orchestrators of the Yankee Nord mosh pit long before kick-off and with howls of derision as an accompaniment for them as the United players first trod the turf.

The south of France is a place Ferguson adores more than most others but this was no holiday.

The string of injuries that have beset him forcing the deployment of the still unproven Darron Gibson in central midfield.

It was at a more prosaic coastal location than this — Blackpool — that Rooney was last deployed down the left as he was here, with Giggs's knee injury the one Ferguson could most have done without. The idea certainly failed on the Fylde coast.

But the day that began with an awareness that a Marseille side without Andr-Pierre Gignac, and possessing a Mathieu Valbuena fit only for the bench, would be on the back foot. L'Equipe spoke of the need to “fermer le jeu” and predicted that “Marseilles jouera serre” (Marseille will play it tight). Yes, Deschamps had said, a 0-0 deadlock would do just fine.

So they sat tight, allowing United on to them and generally looking solid enough to repel any advances.

The flare lit in the narrow pocket of United fans was the only kind of red that set the bitter night air alight.

Nani's light flickered too. He won the free-kick that, when only half cleared, Darren Fletcher fed on for a shot which was gathered unconvincingly.

That right flank certainly looked the most promising one. Gabriel Heinze might be a “warrior” to Ferguson's mind but he doesn't have pace and Nani's dancing feet had him sitting on his backside on the turf. But United didn't exploit it. And while Rooney showed an appetite for the ball, drifting deep to gather and link with Patrice Evra, for whom a predictably infernal reception seemed like water off a duck's back, this was a United midfield shorn of creative impetus.

Marseille's chances were equally sparse, with Loic Remy presenting an intermittent threat. It was United's sloppiness in possession — Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick were culprits — that created the greatest threat to Ferguson's defence.

Dimitar Berbatov was anonymous — the member of the striking partnership who was unable to heed Ferguson's demand of two weeks ago that he and Rooney start delivering away from home.

He was frustrated when Stephane Mbia tried to manhandle him while they awaited a corner.

The sneaky elbow in the face which Brandao delivered to Vidic in the opening minutes of the second half warranted a red card but the collective ranks of five match officials somehow missed it.

Marseille began to sense that the Deschamps masterplan was working and, with United not threatening, started to display some ambition.

But United had the game's late chances. Nani created another chink of light when his flick-on from John O'Shea's cross deceived Rod Fanni but Souleymane Diawara — playing for Charlton Athletic when he last encountered Rooney — made a decisive block from Berbatov's shot.

When Berbatov threaded a route through the area, goalkeeper Steve Mandanda was quick to dive to collect at Nani's feet.

There was no way through, and that must change in Manchester.