Everyone knew what was coming. Yesterday's L'Equipe told of the need to "fermer le jeu" (close the game) and predicted that "Marseilles jouera serré" (Marseilles will play it tight). Yes, Didier Deschamps had said 24 hours before this game, a 0-0 deadlock would suit him just fine.
That the French champions' masterplan should have worked to such perfection will send an understandable shudder of apprehension through Old Trafford today when those with long enough memories recall the dangers of a goalless first leg in Europe. Monaco in 1997 and Madrid in 2000 are two datelines lodged in Sir Alex Ferguson's memory bank as occasions when deadlock had deadly consequences.
Ferguson batted away such thoughts late last night, with the reminder that it would be Manchester United we would be watching at Old Trafford 19 days from now, though the extent to which United proved Deschamps' pre-match assertion that they do not play "fantasy football" any longer gives grounds for some concern.
Granted, United will have some of the wing presence that was denied to them by the calamity of a short-term Ryan Giggs knee injury combining in Park Ji-sung's longer-term hamstring and Antonio Valencia's ankle. But this was one of those occasions – and there have been plenty in this United European campaign – when they looked rather less than champions.
Even Ferguson had to admit that United's passing game went missing here and though he suggested that the pitch was the cause, the surface seemed quite acceptable, in all honesty. He is searching for players who can display the kind of passing game that makes United tick and, yet again, the names of Giggs and Paul Scholes are two that are most sorely missed when they don't make the teamsheet. It made sense that Ferguson opted for Darron Gibson instead of Scholes. The Irishman was selected to build an attacking threat into an otherwise defensive midfield – just as he had in his last European start, when he was so influential at Bayern Munich last year. Rio Ferdinand tweeted from his living room that he was looking for "sprinklings of silks". But Gibson couldn't deliver.
From the start, the welcome was as unedifying as Ferguson had expected, the loud hailers blaring out from the shirtless orchestrators of the Yankee Nord mosh pit long before kick-off and with howls of derision as an accompaniment for them as the United players first trod the turf. The south of France is a place Ferguson adores more than most others but this was no holiday.
A day that began with The Independent's new allegations of bribery surrounding the French club's 1993 Champions League success also brought an awareness that a Marseilles side without André-Pierre Gignac, and possessing a Mathieu Valbuena fit only for the bench, would be on the back foot.
That's just where they stayed, allowing United on to them but generally looking solid enough to repel any advances. The flair by the narrow pocket of United fans was the only kind of red that set the bitter night air alight. Nani's light flickered too. He won the free-kick that, when only half cleared, Darren Fletcher fed on for a shot, which was gathered unconvincingly. That right flank certainly looked the most promising one. Gabriel Heinze might be a a "warrior" to Ferguson's mind but he doesn't have pace and Nani's dancing feet had him sitting on his backside on the turf.
But United didn't exploit it. And while Wayne Rooney showed an appetite for the ball, drifting deep to gather and link with Patrice Evra, for whom a predictably infernal reception seemed like water off a duck's back, so did André Ayew, drifting back tirelessly from his wing position to support Heinze.
Dimitar Berbatov was also anonymous – the member of the striking partnership who was unable to heed Ferguson's demand of two weeks ago that he and Rooney start delivering away from home. He was frustrated when Stéphane Mbia tried to manhandle him while they awaited a corner.
Marseilles began to sense that the Deschamps masterplan was working and, with United not threatening, they started to display some ambition. Loïc Rémy continued to show most of their creativity and was involved in a build-up that created the game's best chance when Ayew crossed but Brandao failed to connect. Chris Smalling's anticipation was as excellent as it had been all night, sliding in to tackle after the 24-year-old had raced past Evra and sent Brandao into the right-hand channel of the box.
Deschamps was at least prepared to try a long shot by sending on Ligue 1's shortest player, Mathieu Valbuena, whose diminutive 5ft 4in stature belies his reputation as Marseilles' most potent striker. He looked lively.
Ferguson shifted to 4-4-2, pulling Rooney in from the wing, and it worked immediately. Nani created another chink of light when his flick-on from John O'Shea's cross deceived Rod Fanni but Souleymane Diawara – playing for Charlton Athletic when he last encountered Rooney – made a decisive block from Berbatov's shot. When Berbatov threaded a route through the area, goalkeeper Steve Mandanda was quick to dive to collect at Nani's feet. There was no way through. United can only rely on history not repeating itself. Before meeting Marseilles, they must face Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. Reasons to be fearful.
Marseilles (4-2-3-1): Mandanda; Fanni, Diawara, Mbia, Heinze; Cisse (Cheyrou, 70), Kabore; Remy (Valbuena, 79), Lucho, A Ayew; Brandao. Substitutes not used Andrade, Taiwo, Hilton, J Ayew, Abriel.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Van de Sar; O'Shea, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Gibson (Scholes, 72), Fletcher, Carrick; Nani, Berbatov, Rooney. Substitutes not used Kuszczak, Brown, Hernandez, Fabio, Rafael, Obertan.
Referee F Brych (Germany).
Manchester United: Man for man marking
Edwin van der Sar
Made some saves but none was too tough. Strong and vocal taking crosses. 6/10
Beaten by Andre Ayew a few times. Less incisive than Rafael would have been. 5
Typically dominant in the air and on the ground. Survived a nasty elbow. 7
Another mature display from the youngster, always calm when on the ball. 7
Useful in providing width on the left, and kept on running all evening. 6
Struggled to make much of an impact on the flow of play. No shots either. 5
Covered more ground than anyone, in wide and central areas. Delivery mixed. 6
Kept the ball well enough but did not set the tempo or create many openings. 5
United's best attacker, he was lively and inquisitive, and had a few shots. 7
Up front on his own, he was mainly isolated. Made some intelligent touches. 5
Running up and down the left flank, sometimes looked to be trying too hard. 6
Subs Scholes: Kept the ball neatly 6