United's proud record buried in Marseilles mud

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The Independent Football

Manchester United's ideal scenario of quick qualification into the next phase of the Champions' League became stuck in the mud of the south of France last night. Now they need four points from their remaining two Group D games to match Sir Alex Frerguson's target of 11 points.

Manchester United's ideal scenario of quick qualification into the next phase of the Champions' League became stuck in the mud of the south of France last night. Now they need four points from their remaining two Group D games to match Sir Alex Frerguson's target of 11 points.

On a swamp of a pitch the defending champions were beaten by William Gallas's goal 22 minutes from the end, the first time they have lost in the competition since December 1997. Marseilles now assume control of the group.

United's team implied that one problem that has been taxing Sir Alex had been solved, if only for the time being. Mark Bosnich retained the goalkeeper's journey from Saturday for his third successive start, which suggested he has burned off the challenge of the dependable Raimond van der Gouw, who had previously played in all their European matches. As for the error-prone Massimo Taibi, who is also ineligible for the Champions' League, his chance of becoming the No 1 is fast disappearing.

Bosnich's retention and Andy Cole's passing of a late fitness test on a hamstring injury meant there were just two changes to United's starting line-up, the captain, Roy Keane, returning to midfield and Henning Berg rejoining Jaap Stam at the centre of the defence.

The fitness of Keane was particularly opportune because an inspection of the Stade Velodrome pitch showed that strength and stamina, the essence of his powerhouse game, would be essential. The surface was so sodden with the heavy rain that the gleam from the floodlights reflected off pools of water and yesterday afternoon there was a danger of the game being called off. And they call Manchester the umbrella capital of western Europe.

The problems for players who rely on trickery and sleight of foot became apparent from the opening seconds when a ripe chance to exploit space with Ryan Giggs on the left flank became bogged down in the mire. The advantage, it was clear, would lie with defenders.

As a consequence the first half was 45 minutes of toil and little inspiration with meaningful attempts at goal as rare as a true yard of turf. Even those tended to come from dead-ball situations when the ball did not need to be carried across the sodden earth.

United were first to go close after four minutes when Dwight Yorke darted in front of his marker to meet David Beckham's free-kick from the left. The Marseilles goalkeeper Stéphane Porato was stranded by the flight and if the ball had not hit Eduardo Berizzo on the edge of the six-yard box the visitors would have taken the lead.

The French marking had been lax then, but so was United's two minutes later when Pierre Issa had a free header from Robert Pires' corner. Fortunately for the European champions his accuracy was not as threatening as his elusive running and his effort slid well wide.

Pires was much more accurate on the half hour when only Bosnich's leap to his right stopped the ball finding the top corner and after 39 minutes Fabrizio Ravanelli was fractionally wide with a long-range free-kick that skimmed off the surface.

The half finished with a mass scuffle after Paul Scholes clattered into Peter Luccin and a less tolerant referee than Helmut Krug might have taken greater sanctions than the yellow card he brandished at the United midfielder and Marseilles' Sebastien Perez.

United had created barely anything in open play before the interval yet they almost put that to rights within five minutes of the restart. A delightfully weighted volleyed pass from Cole gave Keane space on the left of the area and his attempt shot across the face of the goal before going just wide.

Three minutes later Ravanelli squandered an even better chance when United's failure to clear their defences suddenly presented the Italian with an opportunity 10 yards out. Perhaps he was surprised by the opportunity because he turned sluggishly and his shot was too feeble to cause Bosnich serious problems.

With the game seemingly destined for a scoreless draw Marseilles suddenly ripped apart United's defence after 68 minutes. William Gallas cut in from the left, exchanged a one-two with Stéphane Dalmat and crashed the ball past the United goalkeeper with the outside of his foot.

United attacked relentlessly, but the closest they came to an equaliser came after 77 minutes when Giggs crossed from the left, the ball ricocheted off Luccin but rebounded straight into the goalkeeper's arms.

Marseilles (4-1-3-2): Porato; Pérez, Gallas, Berizzo, Blondeau; Issa; Brando (De la Peña, 63), Dalmat, Luccin; Pires, Ravanelli (Maurice, 73). Substitutes: Belmadi, Diawara, Bakayoko, Reina, Trevisan (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Bosnich; Irwin, Berg (Solskjaer, 83), Stam, P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Yorke, Cole. Substitutes: Butt, Cruyff, Clegg, Greening, Higginbotham, Van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: H Krug (Ger).

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