On his first visit to Stade Velodrome, Paul Scholes sat quietly on the team coach as it wove for 40 minutes through the manic Marseille traffic. He watched a video compilation of great moments involving him and his team-mates, the clips all cut to the song Search For The Hero Inside Yourself. The search didn't require long; that long hot Mediterranean day was to show the world the class inside Scholes.
Making his eighth appearance for England, Scholes was unperturbed by the scale of the occasion, the opening of a World Cup campaign against Tunisia in 1998. The presence of so many loud, strong characters such as Tony Adams, Paul Ince and Alan Shearer in the dressing room similarly failed to unnerve him, not even when Adams did his usual face-to-face "are you ready" geeing-up.
Scholes also blocked the unsettling noises off, the shouts and sirens as riot police tried vainfully to keep apart England hooligans and north Africans, many of whom were Algerian locals.
"Nothing seems to faze Scholes," Glenn Hoddle, the England manager, observed later. Such a naturally gifted footballer, and with a prodigious work ethic, Scholes took all challenges in his stride. At 23, he was already established as a force with Manchester United, his medal collection expanding. For those gathered within the Stade Velodrome on Monday, June 15, 1998, there was still the unmistakable and uplifting feeling of a major talent coming of age on the world stage.
Scholes gave one of his finest displays for his country, striking a magnificent goal, a curling 20-yarder in the final minute, sealing victory and prompting one tabloid to declare: 'We've All Gone Ginger Nuts'.
It was not simply the well-timed runs into the box, Scholes twice threatening before scoring. It was also the reminder that a player who supposedly faded because of asthma could complete a gruelling 90 minutes.
In their wisdom, FIFA had decreed a ludicrous 2.30pm kick-off. Such was the dehydration that England's medical staff forbade even a solitary celebratory beer until 48 hours later. Not that Scholes drinks.
In the season after his epic visit to Stade Velodrome, Scholes was immense, finding the mark against Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Inter Milan in the Champions League before picking up a booking in the semi-final with Juventus that ruled him out of the final. The foul was on Didier Deschamps, who will be in the home dugout as Scholes returns to the scene of his global launching this week.
He has been back before, of course, losing with United in 1999, when William Gallas scored for Marseille. Scholes is not the type to dwell on past triumphs or rare failures; he goes from game to game, scoring and creating, occasionally flooring an opponent with a late challenge, a reminder of the steel that lurks amid the silk. No wonder United are so keen for him to follow Ryan Giggs, the one other survivor from the 99 trip, and sign a year's extension.
Even at 36, Scholes would surprise nobody in playing a pivotal role again, working in what should be the decisive area, central midfield. So experienced in Europe, Scholes and company are well versed in the art of excising the sting from fervent supports like Marseille's, frustrating them by keeping possession.
The longer that Scholes and Darren Fletcher can retain the ball, the edgier it will become. Marseille's ground is arguably the best for atmosphere in France but it has febrile tendencies.
Witness recent tension. Marseille's fans can turn on their own team, as happened in the unconvincing win over Arles-Avignon on February 5. The impatience of the local populace was elegantly, and diplomatically, summed up "as more a cry of passion than a stupid or wicked attack" by Marseille's official chronicler. "There is no divorce," emphasised Deschamps of the relationship between terrace and terrain. If Marseille's ultras do fall out with Deschamps' team, Scholes could be named in the divorce.
Second-guessing Alex Ferguson's European line-ups is a hazardous pastime but he often plays one up in the bigger games, flooding central midfield. Scholes, Fletcher and possibly Anderson could operate behind Wayne Rooney (with Nani and Giggs wide). Ferguson could be bold, chasing the away goals by starting Dimitar Berbatov as well as Rooney, but this is no night to gamble. This is a night for Rooney to be running hard, closing down defenders, forcing errors that allows United's midfielders to counter-attack. With Wigan Athletic away next weekend, Ferguson can rotate his strikers.
Marseille's strength lies in midfield. Deschamps says he will assess Mathieu Valbuena's fitness tomorrow and will be hoping the influential midfielder has recovered fully from a month-long knee injury.
Now 26, the short, hard-working France international improves with age, having entered the professional game late. Valbuena certainly shone against England at Wembley last November.
Benoit Cheyrou, the brother of ex-Liverpool midfielder Bruno, has been a consistent force in midfield where Lucho Gonzalez also does good work. Although omitted from Argentina's World Cup squad, a particular hurt as he has a tattoo of their then coach Diego Maradona, Lucho is hardly short of confidence as heard in his appraisal of Wednesday's guests.
"Manchester United are a big club with great players but they can lose," said Lucho, referring to the shock defeat against Wolves at Molineux. "They have already lost. There is no reason for us to be scared. We can beat them."
Marseille deserve respect. English teams have faltered here and the memory remains vivid of Didier Drogba destroying Newcastle United in the UEFA Cup in 2004.
The striker then charged into the Velodrome press room and showered all the English reporters with cheap champagne. Drogba wouldn't waste the good stuff.
The rampaging Ivorian has never been adequately replaced at Marseille, whose fans gave him an emotional salute at Stamford Bridge last September. Their attack is led by Andre-Pierre Gignac and Loic Remy, a decent but not devastating duo.
To combat them, United boast a sufficiently resilient central bulwark in Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand, if fit, and Nemanja Vidic. United's excellent full-backs could be in for lively nights. Rafael, one of United's players of the season, must still beware his youthful fuse burning too quickly. With his Nice and Monaco connections, Patrice Evra is hardly guaranteed a rapturous reception.
As usual, Rafael and Evra will be expected to provide width and they will require little prompting. Nani and the ageless Giggs should also stretch Marseille. But the central acres are the key battleground.
As at France 98, Scholes should feel at home in the Velodrome, searching and finding the hero inside.
Sunday Indo Sport