Battling United dig in to frustrate French
Manchester Utd 0
Champions League last-16 1st leg
Manchester United withstood a second-half mistral from Marseille last night, showing good organisation and resilience to resist the French champions.
Although the Premier League pacesetters would have liked to have returned from the Cote d'Azur with an away goal, they can take comfort from their defensive excellence here, particularly another fine performance from young Chris Smalling.
An England career, and lengthy United prominence, awaits. There was a maturity about Smalling, a refusal to panic when Brandao and company came calling that marks him out as a true United player.
Confident. Unfazed. He was an able assistant to Nemanja Vidic, United's captain who took a nasty elbow from Brandao in the face but soldiered on.
The game also witnessed a selfless, industrious 90 minutes from Wayne Rooney, who willingly played out of position, curbing his attacking instincts to help the cause.
Nani also impressed in parts, demonstrating his preparedness to cover back when Marseille attempted to pressure down the wings.
What this confirmed was the wisdom in Alex Ferguson's words that his team have such a strong DNA, never wilting. It also reflects Didier Deschamps' pre-match observation that United lacked "fantasy", mainly a central creative powerhouse capable of some magic to break down Marseille's hard-working defence.
Manchester United's fans had caught the Mediterranean mood, joining the cafe society on a sun-kissed afternoon and then smuggling flares into their corner of the Stade Velodrome. If United's supporters had a surprise for the stewards, Ferguson certainly had a surprise for them. He started Republic of Ireland's Darron Gibson instead of Paul Scholes in a system that saw Rooney on the left and Nani on the right, in support of a central Dimitar Berbatov.
Rooney often dropped deep, often helping out the midfield, as Marseille maintained a bright tempo, although they faded in the final third. The first half was largely disappointing. On gaining possession, United had layers of blue-and-black to weave through, particularly the deep-line midfield sentries Edouard Cisse and Charles Kabore.
Marseille missed the creativity of Mathieu Valbuena, who was deemed fit enough only for the last 10 minutes. Andre-Pierre Gignac was injured, meaning Brandao led the line with Lucho Gonzalez trying to get in behind.
Enlivened by two bands, the supporters turned the Velodrome into a theatre of drums.
For all their changes, also seeing Smalling deputising well for Rio Ferdinand at the back, there was an experienced and tactical control about Ferguson's side. Their distribution was faulty at times though.
The visitors conjured up some chances in a fairly tame first period. When Stephane Mbia brought Nani down, the Portuguese winger lifted over a free-kick that Marseille managed to clear out to Darren Fletcher. The Scot let fly from the edge of the area, almost catching out Steve Mandanda.
Then Rooney tried his luck, following more good work from Nani. Again, Marseille's defence stood firm. Frequently involved, Nani was echoing Rooney and assisting his defence, tracking back midway through the first half to dispossess Andre Ayew, the son of Abedi Pele.
Marseille do not now shimmer with the class of such local legends, like the African striker who helped them win the 1993 European Cup. Ayew was lively enough though, embarking on some sinewy runs, cutting in from the left, and alarming John O'Shea.
United had to be on their guard. They certainly could not risk the sort of profligacy shown by Michael Carrick, who passed straight to Cisse and was lucky the Marseille counter broke down.
United's anchorman was then eluded by Rod Fanni, again Marseille's final delivery failed to trouble United.
Just before the half-hour, Marseille did spring a good attack, the ball flowing from Lucho to Gabriel Heinze to Brandao, whose twisting kick was clutched by Edwin Van der Sar.
At least United ended the half on a positive note, smoothness and control characterising a promising right-wing move, the ball sped between Gibson and Nani before O'Shea drove in low cross that Heinze forced out for a corner.
United were then enraged when Brandao, having been challenged fairly by Vidic, threw out his left elbow and caught the Serbian in the face.
United's captain was rocked back on his feet, and quickly rubbing his cheek where Brandao had made such malevolent contact. The game was getting nigglier as more urgency crept into Marseille's play. Deschamps' side raised their tempo, pouring forward in waves towards Edwin van der Sar's goal. Ayew shot from left to right and wide. Then Brandao shot, his effort blocked.
Heinze was becoming more prominent, charging down the left time and again, causing real strife in his old club's defence. Nani and O'Shea were almost permanently on firefighting duty.
Then Loic Remy ran in from the right, releasing Lucho, whose effort was blocked. United were having to weather a real storm whipped up by Brandao and Heinze, Ayew and Lucho.
Midway through a frantic half, United broke out. Gibson reached the byeline and crossed. Nani, slightly tamely, flicked the ball gently on and it somehow reached Berbatov. Souleymane Diawara threw himself in the way of the Bulgarian's shot. (© Daily Telegraph, London)