Football: Ferguson flags start of the serious business

Marseilles have the pedigree to threaten Manchester United's European title defence at Old Trafford tonight.

WITH DUE deference to obdurate Croatia Zagreb and flimsy Sturm Graz, Manchester United's Champions' League campaign so far has had a subdued air to it. Some sense of anticlimax was inevitable after the fabulous finale at the Nou Camp, but few anticipated a defence so low key as to be near somnolent.

That will change tonight when Marseilles, the unbeaten leaders of Group D, visit Old Trafford and Sir Alex Ferguson believes the pursuit of a second successive European Cup will gain impetus, purely because of the opposition. After a 0-0 draw with Zagreb and a less than convincing 3- 0 success in Graz, it needs to.

"They're previous winners," the United manager said. "They've got a tradition and it makes it a more appealing game for us. There'll be a more European feel to the game. Our supporters will recognise Marseilles as one of the bigger teams."

Well yes and no. While Marseilles have the pedigree of winning the European Cup in 1993 - though they were subsequently stripped of the title for domestic match-fixing - and reaching the Uefa Cup final last May, they sold the backbone of their defence, Laurent Blanc and Cyrille Domoraud, to Internazionale in the summer and could include four players whose appearances in England were less than glorious. Either their ability was questionable, as in the case of Patrick Blondeau and Robert Pires at Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn Rovers, or their attitude, as in Fabrizio Ravanelli at Middlesbrough and Ibrahima Bakayoko at Everton.

The French runners-up would run the risk of being labelled Premiership rejects were it not for the maximum points they have accrued from their two Champions' League fixtures, which puts them two points ahead of their hosts tonight. If they win at Old Trafford they will be able to prepare for the second phase with some confidence while sending waves of alarm through United.

That would seem unlikely but few expected Marseilles to prevail in Croatia and they won 2-1 there despite Zagreb's doughty performance in Manchester. "Maybe a new team was born there," their midfielder, Peter Luccin, said. Maybe.

The French media believe Ravanelli will start tonight but as Marseilles's tactics last Wednesday revolved around Bakayoko as the sole striker and, as Zagreb also used blanket defence to subdue United, Ferguson expects a less enterprising formation. "They'll have the attitude that if they come away with something they'll still be top of their group," he said. "That'll be their mentality. They'll make it difficult for us and hope they catch us on the counter-attack. That's a normal situation for us in European matches at home, so hopefully our discipline and concentration are good because if they are we'll always make chances."

United certainly made their chances against Southampton on Saturday - 24 shots on target - but slapstick at the back left them ruing a 3-3 draw and a defensive repeat would have United recalling their last match against French opposition two seasons ago when David Trezeguet's early strike was enough to push Monaco through on the away goal.

Given that it was Massimo Taibi and Mickael Silvestre who were largely to blame for two of Southampton's goals, Marseilles possibly have mixed feelings that both are ineligible for tonight's match and United go into Europe with a familiar theme of shoring up an injury stricken side.

Roy Keane, scorer of the first goal against Graz, rejoins the absentees, which means United have eight players missing, and even Ferguson was tiring of reading the sick list yesterday. "We have had to do it before," he said. "It's part of the modern game, which is why you have squads of players rather than a team."

Would Raimond ver der Gouw play? "Maybe". Andy Cole? "Maybe". Now that did have the feel of an authentic European night.

Manchester United (4-4-2 probable): Van der Gouw; Irwin, Berg, Stam, P Neville; Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Cruyff; Cole, Yorke.

Marseilles (4-5-1 probable): Porato; Brando, Berizzo, Gallas, Perez; Keita, Pires, Issa, Luccin, Dalmat; Bakayoko.

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