Fergie feels United can boldly go for Treble glory
The last time Alex Ferguson prepared a Manchester United team to face Marseille at Stade Velodrome, 12 years ago, his team were European champions, still carrying the aura of Treble winners.
And unlikely as it may seem, following Saturday's dismal FA Cup performance against non-League Crawley Town, Ferguson's present team could yet emulate the class of 1999 by repeating the historic haul of Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup this season.
A United side with a midfield quartet of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs lost 1-0 on the club's only previous visit to Marseille, in October 1999. Tonight's line-up will, according to the home side's coach Didier Deschamps lack the "fantasy" of previous United incarnations.
A slight knee injury has forced Giggs to miss the trip to the Cote d'Azur, but Scholes, at 36, will be expected to shoulder the burden of creativity.
With United due to travel to Chelsea and Liverpool in the Premier League, then play a likely FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal at Old Trafford on March 12 before tackling Marseille in the last-16 return leg three days later, the next three weeks are set to define the season for Ferguson and his players.
Another Treble is beginning to loom on the horizon and Ferguson insists that his players, despite recent criticism, are primed to deliver.
"The next three weeks are important weeks," Ferguson said. "We have four games away from home, starting against Marseille, which is a great challenge. They are different types of games. We go to Wigan (on Saturday) and they are bottom of the league and fighting to stave off relegation. Then Liverpool and Chelsea, plus European games. But it is a fantastic time and we hope the players enjoy it too. They don't often let us down in these big games."
Recent criticism of Ferguson's squad -- stemming from the defeat at Wolves earlier this month and then the lame display of the fringe players against Crawley -- has stung.
"People don't stop criticising us." Ferguson said. "We're not playing well, apparently. I hold on to the fact that at home we've often been fantastic.
"We've only dropped two points against West Brom, who we were leading 2-0 at half-time. We're under threat everywhere, but this team refuses to be defeated. We must never give up."
United's failure to match the heights of previous sides has been noted beyond English shores, however. But although Ferguson's team have been unable to produce the mesmeric football of Barcelona, Deschamps has warned his players that United remain a formidable force.
"Maybe this team has a bit less fantasy than some United teams we have seen in the past, but it is not always the nicest-looking team that wins titles," Deschamps said.
"The winning culture will always be present with Manchester United. It's in the DNA of the big clubs.
"Manchester always have talents, always will have. Players like Rooney, Berbatov and Nani, they can make a difference at any time."
United face Marseille as favourites to progress to the quarter-finals, with the Premier League hopeful of having four clubs in the last eight following Tottenham and Arsenal's impressive first-leg victories against AC Milan and Barcelona respectively.
Ferguson insists it would be premature to declare a return to the recent English domination of the Champions League.
"I don't think you can say domination, it's just the last 16 and there are a few hurdles to climb before we get to the final at Wembley," he said
"But English teams have been very powerful in getting to the latter stages. We (all) have a great chance to progress.
"There is no domination at the moment I fear, though, and we know that Marseille are a very powerful team, very athletic and with strong defenders. The Champions League this year is very open and there are a number of teams that can win it, so the opportunity is there for Marseille. I don't make us favourites."
Relying on old-stagers such as Scholes could prove a double-edged sword, with the veteran midfielder now in the twilight of his career.
Ferguson is confident that Scholes is still capable of joining Giggs in playing another season for United.
"I'm more than hopeful of that. His fitness is not a question, but Paul feels he has to play all the games, which is impossible. That won't happen, but he will still play a big part for Manchester United next season," concluded the United boss.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)
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