Ferguson calls for true grit as United embark on crucial three weeks
Now we shall begin to discover if those who claim that Manchester United's domestic ascendancy is a mirage, with simply no Premier League opposition strong enough to expose their weaknesses, are right.
The sarcasm was certainly dripping from Sir Alex Ferguson's observation yesterday, as his side prepared to meet the French champions, that "people don't stop criticising us – we're not playing well, apparently".
Well, the Marseilles manager Didier Deschamps, who claims to have watched every minute of every United match since the Champions League knockout draw was made, 68 days ago, certainly does not believe United are the exhilarating presence they were. "Maybe this team has a bit less fantasy than [some United teams] we have seen in the past," he said.
It is certainly a very different United side from the one, boasting David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, which Ferguson last brought to this part of the Mediterranean coast 12 years ago, though William Gallas's winning goal that night rather proved the second part of Deschamps' thesis on United yesterday. "It is not the nicest-looking team that wins titles."
The French coach, who succeeded where so many others had failed by taking the club to their first domestic title since the 1993 European Champions Cup triumph – over which Mark Hateley's testimony casts an even darker cloud today. According to Deschamps: "The winning culture is encrypted in the DNA of the great sides. When we won the [European] title in '93 it wasn't the nicest team we had, but we won games." United's recent wins over Blackpool and Manchester City rather bear out his point.
Ferguson was able to cast his eye over a 21-day period on which seasons can stand or fall, with visits to Stamford Bridge and Anfield and possibly an FA Cup tie with Arsenal sandwiched by the two Marseilles fixtures. There seemed to be a challenge to his players when he anticipated "a fantastic time" and how "we hope the players enjoy it too".
However, he has an ever decreasing number of them available to take the responsibility – the manager confirmed that Anderson's knee injury has seen him travel to consult a new specialist – though the challenge in the febrile atmosphere of Stade Vélodrome rests with United's ability to fashion a goal. The French media has spotted a chink of hope: United's vulnerability in the knockout rounds when they can be first held to 0-0 away (Monaco, 1997; Real Madrid, 2000) and Deschamps did not reject the notion of deadlock as a tactic, saying: "[Nil-nil] is not a bad result as such. It would mean 50 per cent of the job could be done and defending will be crucial."
This may make for a less absorbing occasion than the north London sides offered last week. With Deschamps confirming that Mathieu Valbuena is unlikely to feature and the forwards Loïc Rémy (heel) and Brandao (ankle) due to be assessed today, the French lack the firepower which disposed of Chelsea 1-0 here in the group stage.
The sub-plots may provide the fireworks. This will be Gabriel Heinze's first appearance against United since his ignominious departure to Real Madrid in 2007. There were regrets expressed yesterday by the 32-year-old, whose attempts to force a move to Liverpool were blocked by an incensed Ferguson before the Premier League arbitrated against it.
"I don't have many regrets from my career as a footballer but that episode with Ferguson [has] to be one of them," said Heinze, who has since crossed Ferguson's path only once – when both were in Qatar for the Argentina-Brazil match last November – and did not give the sense yesterday that they had much to say to each other.
"I'm impulsive and strong-willed and this has got me into trouble at times, which was the case at the time when I left United. On reflection, it is easy to see that Ferguson was a major influence on my career, in a positive way. I am sorry that we fell out in the final days because I still have so much respect for him." Ferguson promptly responded by accusing the player's agent of deliberate deceit on the issue.
Patrice Evra confronts his demons too, as he plays in his native land for the first time since last summer's player revolt in South Africa, which was criticised by Deschamps – a proud Frenchman who said yesterday that his decision to decline Liverpool's approach last July was in part because he did not want the controversy heaping more opprobrium on his country.
"I wouldn't sum up Patrice Evra only by what happened in South Africa," Deschamps said. "OK, he was the captain, but there were staff around him. I would rather remember what happened at Monaco when he was one of my players."
Ferguson, whose loss of Ryan Giggs leaves minimal midfield options, concluded his press conference by suggesting Scholes should put pride aside and sign a new one-year deal. "He feels that he's got to play all the games, and of course that's impossible," the manager said. "But he can still play a big part. I think he should [sign a contract]. His fitness is not a question."
Marseilles v Nan Utd: Three key confrontations
Gabriel Heinze v Nani
The former Manchester United defender is likely to come up against the tricky Portuguese winger on United's right flank. Nani has been United's main attacking outlet for prolonged periods this season and Heinze's ability to track his cutting inside on to his left foot could be key to deciding the outcome tonight.
Lucho Gonzalez v Paul Scholes
"Hardworking but elegant on the ball" could be used to describe either of these playmakers with both sides looking to their man to dictate matters. Referred to as "the commander", Lucho scored twice in the group game at Zilina and he will seek to influence the game from his role just behind the front three.
Loïc Rémy v Nemanja Vidic
A summer target for Stoke and West Ham, Rémy opted to remain in France and is noted for his fast, muscular style. A centre-forward in the mould of Didier Drogba, Rémy will be a handful for Nemanja Vidic, with the 24-year-old also able to drop back into midfield.
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