Hernandez keeps United Wembley dream alive
Manchester Utd 2
Marseille 1 (Agg: 2-1)
Champions League last 16, 2nd leg
Manchester United remain on Wembley Way, targeting the Champions League final as well as the FA Cup, but they never, ever, do things the easy way.
In reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, United lost two right-backs, conceded an own goal and generally gave their fans palpitations. But they held on to Javier Hernandez's close-range brace to survive, even if the roar at the final whistle was one of pure relief.
If some of United's counter-attacking was exceptional, too much of their defending was poor.
As if to highlight United's defensive problems, John O'Shea and Rafael limped off with hamstring injuries while Wes Brown conceded an own goal to set up a frantic last few minutes.
How United missed Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, the England centre-half who seemed to be playing a game of hide and seek with England manager Fabio Capello at Old Trafford.
The Italian had come to explain his decision to deprive Ferdinand of the armband, a decision that has angered the defender, although talk of his rushing into international retirement was premature.
England need Ferdinand. So do United. Their defence was weak and they were grateful to Hernandez and Wayne Rooney for lifting the siege late on.
United's strikers worked hard to kill the game off through four minutes off added time that seemed like four hours.
The potential of the Rooney-Hernandez axis had been seen even before the Mexican's fifth-minute goal. Hernandez found Rooney with a neat pass, hinting at the promise.
A penny for the thoughts of the watching Dimitar Berbatov. United then took the lead, deserved reward for their flying start.
There was an urgency to Ferguson's side, a huge appetite to seize the lead, the men in red showing far more purpose than in that most sterile of first-leg stalemates in the Stade Velodrome.
The goal was spiced with the class of Rooney, who began the move with a sublime half-volleyed pass to Ryan Giggs out on the left. Living up to the banner of 'tearing you apart since 1991', Giggs caught out Marseille's defence with his speed of thought and accuracy of delivery.
The French barricades were well and truly stormed. Rooney collected Giggs' return and drilled the ball across. Hernandez, such a sniffer of half-chances, had lost Gabriel Heinze with his quicksilver movement.
The yard of space won, Hernandez had the simplest of finishes to push United ahead. Hardly one of the game's hard men, Hernandez was fired up, soon following through on Heinze.
The delight of the Stretford End was not shared by the Spanish referee, Carlos Velasco Carballo, who brandished a yellow card. Hernandez lived dangerously in the opening period, catching Heinze again. Fortunately for him, Carballo failed to notice.
Still the Rooney-Hernandez impressed. The Englishman lifted in a cross that the Mexican headed goalwards only to be denied by goalkeeper Steve Mandanda.
If Marseille's backline hardly resembled the imposing Pyrenees, United's defence was not convincing either. They missed Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, whose calf problem ensured he was rested as a precaution. Chris Smalling and Wes Brown did not look the most redoubtable of partnerships, enduring a worrying mix-up early on.
Smalling did impress at times, sliding in to nick the ball ahead of Andre-Pierre Gignac. Marseille's centre-forward should have equalised, though, but lifted his effort horribly over when one-on-one with United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.
For all United's threat on the break, Marseille began to believe they could get back into this. Lucho Gonzalez wasted a good free-kick opportunity, lifting the ball into a grateful Stretford End.
John O'Shea then departed the fray, having pulled his left hamstring racing past Heinze. Rafael eventually darted on. Marseille kept threatening, mainly from set-pieces. Benoit Cheyrou laid a short corner back to Taye Taiwo, whose cross was met powerfully by Souleymane Diawara but the tall centre-half headed wide. Back came Marseille again, Cheyrou letting fly, forcing Van der Sar into emergency action.
Knowing how vulnerable they were to the away goal, United raised their game.
Rooney, cutting in from the left, elected to shoot rather than pick out Hernandez at the far post, slightly to the Mexican's annoyance, particularly when Rooney's effort hardly troubled Mandanda.
As the half closed, United almost scored a second. Diawara's sliding challenge on Nani in the area needed to be perfect; it was, although he conceded a corner. Giggs swept the ball across to Smalling, who rose well but headed over. On the hour, a clearly tiring Nani departed, replaced by Valencia. United needed Valencia's energy as alarm bells continued to ring in the hosts'
defence even when Hernandez's second seemed to have calmed nerves. They had to negotiate some tricky moments before then. When Taiwo swept over a cross from the left, Brown resembled a octopus attempting gymnastics. His legs were all over the place, one connecting with the ball and almost slicing the ball past Van der Sar.
Problems continued to haunt United's defence. The right-back position seemed jinxed; now it was Rafael's turn to suffer a hamstring strain. He sought to limp on but the Brazilian colt was clearly lame and soon departed on a stretcher. His twin Fabio sprinted on.
United almost lost another defender when Brown was caught by Mathieu Valbuena in the act of clearing. Angered by the substitute's challenge, Brown pushed the Frenchman, who was booked.
Nerves continued to swirl around Old Trafford. Shortly after Van der Sar had saved from Cheyrou, United struck, again from a quick-fire attack.
Valencia's vision picked out Giggs, whose right-footed cross flew into the area. Once again, Hernandez had eluded his marker, this time Diawara, and turned the ball firmly past Mandanda.
But Marseille kept going, forcing an own goal by Brown with eight minutes remaining.
That forced the Red Devils to ensure a nervy last 10 minutes, with Cheyrou again causing problems. (© Daily Telegraph, London)