Champions League Last 16: Manchester United vs. Olympique Marseille Preview

illya mclellan@illya mclellan @illbehaviorNZSenior Analyst IFebruary 8, 2011

Champions League Last 16: Manchester United vs. Olympique Marseille Preview

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    Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

    The Champions League is synonymous with footballing success now.  So much so, that it has usurped the international game in terms of importance and prescribed value.

    The FIFA World Cup is, of course, still a major event, but who could have predicted only 10 years ago that a yearly tournament such as the European Champions League would become more important to fans of the game than the World Cup?

    Manchester United are obviously an English team, though their team is made up of players from across the globe along their fanbase (which is one of the largest in football, or any sport for that matter).

    This is perhaps why the Champions League has grabbed the hearts and minds of the world's fans, because club football at the highest level is now truly global.  With players from hundreds of different countries making up the rosters of teams throughout Europe, the game of football has reached a more international level.

    Therefore, the Champions League has become just as important as the World Cup, some would even argue more important, for the reason that it involves the world's most elite footballers playing together on a more regular basis.

    Manchester United have a long and reasonably successful European tradition, first winning the Champions League in 1968 (when it was still known as the European Cup) under the management of club legend Sir Matt Busby. They have gone on to record two more trophies in the competition under the guidance of current Old Trafford legend Sir Alex Ferguson in 1999 and 2008.

    It is well known that Ferguson has a burning ambition to win again in Europe, and many think that this is the reason he is still in the managerial hot-seat. Though of course, beating Liverpool's record of Premier League title wins is something that must also drive him. This season, he has guided his team through to the last sixteen undefeated in group play, and, in truth, were never seriously tested by the opponents they faced.

    The group stage is over now though and United face French champions Olympique Marseille in what could be a fixture that could produce a couple of European nights to remember. This tie will figure prominently in Ferguson's plans for the next couple of weeks and could well be top of his agenda— considering the importance on which he places this trophy.

    Marseille have struggled this season to reproduce the form that saw them capture the French Ligue One last season, and though capable of playing a synchronised and precise game, they have labored in front of goal, with their strikers being almost routinely jeered by the home crowd this season. They did, however, beat Chelsea in their last match in the group stage.  However, it must be remembered that Chelsea had been in terrible form and are a shadow of the side that seemed so powerful last season.

    United, of course, have most recently had their undefeated league run ended by Wolverhampton Wanderers in a result that stunned many across the footballing world. After shakily negotiating the tightrope of an undefeated run for so long, they slipped against a team that many expected them to dominate.  The question now being, how far can they fall?

    In the following preview, both sides seasons and key players will be analysed, and conclusions will be drawn on the possibility of each sides progression to the quarter finals.

Marseille-Overview and Key Players

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    An experienced squad with world class talent in its ranksMichael Steele/Getty Images

    Marseille have often looked like they are about to recapture the form that saw them finish six points clear of Lyon at the top of last seasons French Ligue One, though they have struggled to replace the leagues top goal scorer Mamadou Niang, who's excellent form in front of goal last season was one reason they were able to end a championship drought that had dragged on for eighteen long years.

    They did sign Andre-Pierre Gignac from Toulouse, though the new striker had struggled to recapture the form that he had shown for Toulouse and the French national side. Recent form has suggested he is on the verge of repaying manager Didier Deschamps faith though, with the "Gypsy King", as he has been called, notching a goal in each of his last two home starts, which only takes his season tally to three, but is of course a quite drastic improvement. For Marseille, on the eve of such a huge Champions League fixture, his return to form could not come at a better time. 

    Marseille's top scorer is Loic Remy, who has found the net six times, so it is evident that at present they do not have a striker who is finding the net on a regular basis. This could prove to be crucial as Manchester United have a proud defensive record in European competition and would be expected to defend in a lot more stout a fashion than the teams that Marseille meet from week to week in the league.

    A major part of Marseille's ability to compete in this match will be the support of their home crowd at the famous Stade Velodrome. The crowd has turned against the team recently, one of the teams center backs even confronting elements in the stands in the last match, as the boo boys voiced their disappointment at the teams poor play. Though the match was won, it remains an uneasy truce, and it would certainly make the tie an easier proposition for Manchester United's away leg if the crowd behaves in such a fickle manner.

    Key Players

    Marseille do however have a very competitive team unit, and several outstanding players, Lucho Gonzalez in particular is one to keep an eye on in this tie. Gonzalez is an exciting playmaker who loves to get on the ball and thread a pass or outfox an opponent to create space, he is capable of scoring and creating goals. He was also, quite promisingly, from a Marseille perspective anyway, part of the FC Porto side that drew with United at Old Trafford in 2009 and who would have knocked United out had it not been for Cristiano Ronaldo's thunderbolt from forty or so yards in Porto.

    Another key player for Marseille is Benoit Cheyrou, another play-maker, though more comfortable in a deeper lying role, he will be one that United will have to close down and not let get comfortable, he is known for his excellent vision, wonderfully improvised and technically proficient distribution and a proved ability to lay on goal scoring chances.

    Gabriel Heinze of course is a former United player, and is remembered fondly by many United fans, for his work ethic and unerring dedication to the team. He was of course unfortunately injured for a reasonable length of time, which led to United signing Patrice Evra and the Frenchman displayed excellent form which kept Heinze out of the team and eventually led to his transfer to Real Madrid.Heinze is a key player not only because he has the experience of playing for United, but also because he is a big game player who has won medals. Such players are known for their ability to step up in big matches, and it is frequently the case thar they end up sneaking in somewhere and giving their former clubs a scare somehow or the other.

    Other key men will be the Senegalese, Souleymane Diawara, an accomplished defender who has won the French title twice in three years, with Bordeaux and then current club Marseille. In England he is probably best remembered for enduring a disappointing time with Charlton Athletic, where the chairman of Charlton quipped that 'he had never heard of him', which is somewhat typical of a chairman really, showing that they no little or nothing about football.

    Goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, will be another key player for Marseille for rather obvious reasons, but is well regarded as a keeper and has been mentioned in the past as a possible replacement for Edwin Van Der Sar. A good shot stopper with a strong aerial presence, he has a sure pair of hands that will definitely be brought into play during the course of the two legged tie.

Manchester United-Overview and Key Players

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    Clive Mason/Getty Images

    Manchester United have been the most consistent of the English sides this season, their consistency garnering them the top spot in the EPL, for now, and a sound basis for progress in Europe, with an undefeated passage through the group stage. They were of course defeated for the first time in the league only a few days ago, by Mick McCarthy's Wolves side, in one of the upsets of the season. Surprisingly enough, Wolves have had only seven wins, in which they have accounted for the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and now United.

    This could well be because the "bigger" sides go to Wolves with the notion they have won the game already, a notion that Ferguson will want to stamp out of his team if they are to have a chance in winning the three major trophies they now vie for.

    Alex Ferguson will be wary of his sides morale before a big game this weekend against Manchester City, and will be equally as concerned about his '"baby", the Champions League trophy.

    United had seemed to hit a rich vein of form over the New Year period, going clear of their rivals in the league and scoring goals as they did so. Wayne Rooney looked to have found form again with an excellent game against Aston Villa, though prior to that match, the somewhat scratchy win over Blackpool was hastily filed away, before the shocking loss to Wolves.

    United do have a tough second half of the season coming up and a two legged tie like the Marseille game is one that Ferguson could perhaps want to sew up in the first leg at Old Trafford. This would leave him the option of resting some of his first choice line up when the second tie takes place in Marseille. This of course will suit Didier Deschamps, the Marseille manager, as he himself has famously been in a triumphant underdog side before, when the French national team shocked the world by beating the highly fancied Brazilians in the World Cup final in 1998.

    Despite United's loss to Wolves, they are still one of the form teams in Europe at present and are favored by many to make short work of the French Champions, who have looked disjointed on occasion this season, most notably when they crashed out of the French Cup to second tier side, Evian TG FC in a 3-1 loss.

    Knock out football is always a tightrope though, and made all the more interesting by the away goals rule, which proved the undoing of United last season when they went out to Bayern Munich.

    Key Players

    Wayne Rooney has so far had a difficult season following on from his stellar showing in United's last campaign, and though having seemed to have turned a corner against Aston Villa, looked woefully out of sorts against Wolves. He was subbed in the second half as Ferguson searched for the combination that would keep his unbeaten record in the league alive. Rooney of course remains a key man, because if he plays well, then United normally prosper, and his quality is still something that opposition teams are well aware of when they plan for fixtures.

    Nemanja Vidic has been the rock on which United's excellent season has been based, the United central`defender has been in astonishing form as he has almost single handedly kept United in matches that they could easily have lost or shared the points. The Serbian is a player that could slot into any team on the planet such is his defensive prowess. He is one player who could be the difference if United are to experience any sort of success close to their taking of the 2008 Champions League trophy.

    Dimitar Berbatov has broken the shackles this season, long derided as not of sufficient quality to play for United, the Bulgar has silenced the critics in stepping into the void that Rooney has left due to his patchy form since becoming one of the highest paid players in the universe. The Bulgarian has the skill, finesse and technical ability to make his mark in Europe, his play sometimes sublime, though he does occasionally drift out of matches, he is the sort of player who can turn a game in a few seconds.

    Luis Nani is another who has carried the burden of fans doubts, though his improvement last term was excellent and he has carried on again this season, scoring and providing goals, he looks ready to become the star player he was touted as when he first came onto the scene at United a few years ago.

    Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, though more often deployed from the sideline, has become Ferguson's go to player if he thinks he needs a match turned on its head. This could well make him a vital part of United's European assault, and his capacity for improvised magic is something that always makes his presence a worry for opposition managers.

    Manchester United have many others that could figure, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes of course seasoned campaigners,who have been there and done this all before. The likes of Ji Sung Park and Darren Fletcher and the ever reliable Patrice Evra, are all capable of swinging matches. Custodian Edwin Van Der Sar is of course another big part of United's success, the Dutchman, though nearing the end of his career, remains one of the best keepers in the world.


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    William Gallas celebrates his winner in the last game these two sides played at Stade Velodrome in October 1999Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    The tie looked fairly open and shut before United slipped up in the weekend gone, the first defeat of the league season and the second defeat in all competitions. Marseille took the points in their weekend fixture but their own fans booed them, some saying that they were not satisfied with the quality of the football played of Marseille's victory.

    Suddenly though, this game takes on a major significance, as United seek to reassure themselves and their support of their infallibility.

    Coming on the back of what is the biggest game of the season for United supporters, the visit of Manchester City. City were of course very close to beating United in the corresponding fixture last season, though Ryan Giggs and Michael Owen conspired to turn the game in United's favor, during an injury time period now famously referred to as "Fergie time".

    City present an even bigger challenge this season, with the ridiculously rich side experiencing a good run of form which has seen them slowly come into contention for top honors this season. If United experience anything but a victory in the weekends game, they could find themselves under hellish pressure to perform come the visit of Marseille.

    Marseille are without doubt a quality outfit, and have beaten English opposition this season already, and interestingly enough, though the last time the two teams met were in Champions League group games, the final aggregate score if tallied was 2-2, with Marseille scoring the only away goal.

    Manchester United's season hangs in the balance, with two major hurdles to overcome in the next few days. If they stumble against City, not only could it be potentially vomit inducing for the United faithful, but the pressure on the side will heighten and morale could take a knock. The midweek game against Marseille could then prove to be more than an annoyance, particularly so after what could well be a bruising encounter against their city rivals.

    If United win in the weekend, it would be almost a given that they will have enough confidence and belief to foil the French champions. If they draw or lose, they just might be there for the taking, for Didier Deschamps and his underdogs.