Nervy United conjure magic touch
It is dangerous to have an opinion, especially if it does not coincide with Sir Alex Ferguson's. When Manchester United went to Marseille three weeks ago, Didier Deschamps voiced the view many share, suggesting the Premier League leaders lack the pizzazz and panache of their past teams. While Ferguson bristles at criticisms of his team, the subsequent stalemate seemed to vindicate the Frenchman.
Defeat in the rematch may not, but he remained unrepentant. "The first feeling is one of regret, we let our chance slip," Deschamps said. "It's not a fantastic Manchester United side." The statistics support his theory. While the ultimate fantasy footballer, Lionel Messi, has mustered only one fewer Champions League goal on his own than United have between them, the side Deschamps deemed lacking in stardust nonetheless possessed too much for Marseille.
With a luminous display from Wayne Rooney, a clinical brace from Javier Hernandez and a duo of key contributions from Ryan Giggs, they advanced to the quarter-finals for a fifth successive season. That said, the combination of flair in attack and fragility at the back made it a nervy form of progress.
However, United's front four were too quick, too elusive and too enterprising for the French champions. Ferguson has energised the forward line by demoting Dimitar Berbatov. While the benched Bulgarian hasn't scored in Europe since 2008, Hernandez has managed United's three most significant goals of the current campaign on the continent.
The professional predator's debut year at Old Trafford has only incorporated 17 starts, but has brought 16 goals. The latest were among the simplest, but there is a talent to getting tap-ins. A speedy striker has progressed quicker than his manager expected. "We are surprised," Ferguson said. "When we bought him, we thought it would take some time to adjust. Now he has adjusted very well."
Behind him, a revitalised Rooney appears to have rediscovered his form. This has been the best week of his season which, admittedly, is not the bold statement it could have been. But this was a night when Rooney again resembled the quintessential United player, blending bullishness with brilliance as the bridge between Hernandez and the midfield. His supposed minders, Marseille's defensive midfielders, Benoit Cheyrou and Stephane Mbia, rarely got near him. "I think he's coming into really good form now and he's enjoying the freedom behind Hernandez," Ferguson added. "Hernandez's pace and movement is helping him."
He was flanked by medical marvels. A rapid recovery from a gashed leg enabled Nani to begin on the right, but Antonio Valencia's appearance, and role in the second goal, was more heart-warming. Having sustained a broken ankle in the Champions League, it felt a form of justice for the Ecuadorian.
On the left, fashioning both goals with a precision that wasn't always apparent in his crossing and sprinting back 50 yards to cover with an effortless ease that belied his 37 years was the physiological marvel, Ryan Giggs.
He helped bring Marseille's run of five consecutive clean sheets in Europe to an end in the fifth minute. Rooney's dinked cross-field ball was met by Giggs, who returned it to the striker with an incisive pass that split l'OM's defence open, enabling him to drill the ball across the face of goal. Ever predatory, Hernandez arrived at the far post for a tap in. Some 70 minutes later, a twisting and turning Valencia found Giggs, who rolled the ball sideways for Hernandez to finish.
Yet neither side played in a manner to explain their frugal records. Minus Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, United acquired a glass jaw. In tandem, Wes Brown and Chris Smalling afford opponents a chance, as Liverpool can testify.
United lived dangerously. After Andre Ayew's delightful overhead flick, Andre Gignac miscued a shot well wide. Following a well-worked short corner, the similarly unmarked Souleymane Diawara was just as wasteful, directing his header wide. Gabriel Heinze headed wide and Edwin van der Sar twice blocked before he was beaten by incapability Brown.
A garish slice at a cross could have brought an own goal even before he beat Heinze to Lucho Gonzalez's corner. It set up an awkward ending, but when United had a depleted defence and Ferguson admitted: "There was a lack of experience there and it could have cost us." One of the absentees was Rio Ferdinand, the soon-to-be ex-England captain. "I'm not getting involved in that," growled Ferguson. Even when he doesn't have an opinion, it isn't worth arguing.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney - He enjoyed the chance to drop deeper to indulge in some Paul Scholes-esque passing. Back-to-back big-game displays from United's best-paid player suggest that, finally, he might be approaching his peak. If so, it will be well timed for the run-in.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: They were impressive going forward, but imperilled in defence. Circumstances explain that; having played seven defenders on Saturday, they are running short of them now with both John O'Shea and Rafael da Silva going off injured. Of the injured legion, Jonny Evans may be the only one available to face Bolton at the weekend.
MARSEILLE VERDICT: On the balance of chances, they could easily have reached the quarter-finals. It was instructive that, when searching for an equaliser, Deschamps removed his main striker, Gignac, to bring on the fit-again Mathieu Valbuena.