Marseille 0-0 Manchester United
United may not have followed the leads of Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs in the Champions League's last-16 ties, but the Reds remain favourites to reach the quarter-finals after this stalemate with a decent if unambitious Marseille side.
Goalscoring chances were few and far between on a disappointing night at Stade Velodrome, and Sir Alex Ferguson will hope for more from his attacking players when the battle continues at Old Trafford in a fortnight's time - while asking his defence to remain just as solid against the threat of the dreaded away goal for Marseille.
The United boss recalled eight big guns at the back and in attack for the first leg, but he picked two thirds of the same midfield which laboured to victory over Crawley Town in the FA Cup – Darron Gibson and Michael Carrick – and retained John O’Shea in defence.
Marseille made an aggressive start straight from the kick-off, in both senses of the word - Gabriel Heinze lunged at Nani and Loic Remy fired the first wild shot across United’s bows, both inside the first 60 seconds. Nani was closer with his opening crack at goal when Dimitar Berbatov teed up him just outside the box, although again the goalkeeper wasn’t troubled.
Playing on the right of a front three, Nani was putting the home side on the rack in the early stages with his surges beyond Heinze. When one such streak drew a foul and Nani’s free-kick was only half cleared, Darren Fletcher drove a first-time shot through a ruck of players; Marseille keeper Steve Mandanda saw it late but pulled off a fine save.
After a lively opening, the game’s tempo dipped to a more typical level for a European match. Less characteristic was United’s use of the ball – or rather misuse with sloppy passes from central midfield handing Marseille opportunities they didn’t have the wherewithal to exploit. Fortunately Rod Fanni’s right-flank delivery didn’t match the brilliance of his turn and surge past Rooney, while Brandao’s bicycle kick had style but insufficient substance to concern Edwin van der Sar.
The sides won a corner apiece in the closing moments of the first half, from their favoured right flanks. Remy whipped in a ball that Smalling had to repel from the six-yard line with a diving header; then O’Shea’s cross was blocked by Heinze.
The second period opened in similar fashion to the first, with Marseille and United doing enough in the right areas to suggest a decent half was in prospect. Brandao nodded a cross into the hands of van der Sar, while Heinze used his head at the other end to bale out Mandanda after Rooney’s centre left the keeper unusually stranded.
Smalling and Vidic had to be equally alert as Marseille’s attacks gathered some momentum, with both United centre-backs making timely blocks to thwart Remy and Lucho. In the same dangerous spell, a free-kick won by Heinze’s theatrics and a close call from Andre Ayew’s left foot stirred the biggest roars from the home fans – not that the incessantly noisy bunch, backed by a battery of drummers, needed any encouragement.
After weathering a brief storm, the Reds broke out with O’Shea reaching the byline and pulling the ball back for Nani. The Portuguese winger elected to flick it on rather than fire at goal and Berbatov’s shot found the bulk of Souleymane Diawara
Sir Alex made his first change with 18 minutes remaining, replacing Gibson with the most experienced player at his disposal, Paul Scholes. Keeping possession and staying composed were the key aims following his introduction – anything else would have been a bonus and it might have come had Mandanda not been quick off his line to stop Nani finishing off some fine interplay with Berbatov.
A couple of late corners raised the home fans’ hopes but in the end they – and United – had to be content with 0-0 and no damage done at half-time in this tie.
Edwin van der Sar - Prevented an inswinging Ayew corner from going in during the first period, but that was his only notable save. Nevertheless, he was always alert to any danger particularly in the second period when Marseille upped the tempo.
John O’Shea - From centre-back against Crawley, the Irishman returned to the right-back slot he is now more accustomed to. Stuck to his task well in defence and supported Nani when he could with some decent bursts forward.
Chris Smalling - Covered more than capably for Rio Ferdinand’s continued absence. His concentration and positioning were first class and he was the epitome of calmness on the ball.
Nemanja Vidic - As solid as ever, Vida marshalled the back four with his usual no-nonsense approach. His partnership with Smalling limited Marseille to very few clear sights of goal.
Patrice Evra - The former France captain received the hostile reception he expected from the home crowd, but was still proficient and professional.
Darron Gibson - Started well and was involved in United’s attacking play, but struggled to stamp his authority after the break as Marseille became more of a threat. Substituted on 73 minutes.
Michael Carrick - Provided good cover just in front of the back four allowing Fletcher and Gibson to get forward. Worked well in tandem with Scholes after the veteran’s introduction midway through the second period.
Darren Fletcher - A typically energetic performance from the Scot who had United’s best, and only, chance of the first half, but he saw his low sweeping effort well saved by Mandanda.
Nani - The winger was United’s brightest player in the opening period and gave Gabriel Heinze some uneasy momnets. Always looked a threat although he was unable to get on the ball as much as he’d have liked after the interval.
Wayne Rooney - Starting on the left of 4-3-3, Wayne worked tirelessly for the cause both in attack and defence and even though not everything came off for him he never let his head drop.
Dimitar Berbatov - When not starved of service, he showed some neat touches and held the ball up well. Went close to slipping Nani through on goal late on.
Paul Scholes (for Gibson, 73 mins) - You hoped the veteran’s introduction would add some much-needed creativity to United’s midfield, but unfortunately it never materialised.