James Lawton: Lacklustre performance offers scant solace for showdown with Chelsea

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson's ambitions remain as insistent as ever but never before has he demanded so much from so little.

This was not the performance of champions-elect of Europe or much anywhere else. Marseilles said they would be happy enough with a goalless draw and they got their wish. It came, sadly enough, by default. Ferguson's call for "something more", for the kind of authority which might persuade a doubting world that United are doing more than hanging on in their latest pursuit of treble glory, too often looked like another illusion that might just be blown away by a gust of le Mistral.

No doubt United were tight and almost entirely hazard-free, if we forget a sneaky little corner which required Edwin van der Sar to snap to attention early in the first half, but against a team short of ambition and any compelling reason to believe in themselves, the kind of performance the United manager craved was utterly elusive in a quite wretched first half.

Marseilles, who are regaining a little momentum in their attempt to retain the French title, hardly announced an attacking instinct – and if they are more formidable side than the one brushed aside by Chelsea in Copenhagen on Tuesday night, there wasn't a whole lot of evidence. In fact the only relevant comparison was with United's opponents in a vital collision next week, when it will be hard not to suspect that for all their problems, Chelsea might well be able to marshal both superior cohesion in midfield and more menace up front.

That at least had to be the conclusion if you considered the form line that was running from Copenhagen to the Stade Vélodrome.

Ferguson had specifically demanded more from Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov but for any such beseeching to have real meaning another problem has to be resolved. It was one which marks the difference between this United who scrap and scuffle and mostly, splendidly reject the concept of defeat, and the one that delivered the historic treble 12 years ago.

The team that had the United manager charging down the Nou Camp touchline so ecstatically had midfield depth and craft and was able to beat Bayern Munich without Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. All these years on, United could not begin to make a similar claim and if there was any doubt about this it dissolved in the second half when Darron Gibson was called off in favour of who else but Scholes.

It was another concession by Ferguson of his dependence on an old United – one that is surely running to the end of its capacity to obscure the weaknesses of today.

Scholes, inevitably, triggered more urgency, more bite as United sought to deny Marseilles the result which both their coach Didier Deschamps and their midfielder Edouard Cissé had been candid to enough to say would be much less than a disaster.

The veteran, of course, will never be able to achieve any more before the end of his superb career than a papering over of some severe cracks. Last night United's midfield was a creative dead zone, if you take away the moments of menace generated by Nani – a remarkable talent no doubt, but not a man to take hold of anything, and often least of all his own destiny in any one match.

United may have one foot in the quarter-finals, but they have rarely been obliged to watch their step more carefully. They remain a team who need a major player to take them back from the edge.