The port city of Marseille will be buzzing at the arrival of Manchester United. Going well in the league and some favourable results in the Group Stage: Juliet JacquesGuardian writer and Ligue 1 fan gives you a glimpse of L’OM’s chances.

Olympique de Marseille enter their Champions League last 16 tie against Manchester United returning to form, but afflicted by injuries. Didier Deschamps’ side recovered excellently from a slow start in this competition, a brilliant 3-0 win at Spartak Moscow securing the French champions’ qualification from their group, but then won just one of their next eight Ligue 1 games as their title defence faltered.

The turning point came with a nervous home win over whipping boys Arles Avignon, as l’OM limped to a 1-0 win, amidst considerable unrest in the stands. (The French authorities are investigating the banner unfurled by the Stade Velôdrome Ultras during the match, reading ‘Man up, you bunch of poofs’.) Summer signing André-Pierre Gignac, bought from Toulouse after an unhappy World Cup, scored just his third goal for l’OM: they then won their next two Ligue matches, beating Sochaux 2-1 thanks to Gignac’s brace, and then defeating Saint-Étienne by the same scoreline.

Gignac provided an assist for the opening goal against ASSE, but tore a muscle and will definitely miss this week’s match – fellow strikers Brandão and Loïc Rémy were also injured but have a chance of featuring. Besides these losses, Deschamps’ biggest problem (besides the pre-season sales of Hatem Ben Arfa and Mamadou Niang) is an injury to playmaker Mathieu Valbuena, who has been linked with a move to Old Trafford after his fine form for l’OM’s this season. Without Valbuena, l’OM are over-reliant on Argentinian talisman Lucho González in midfield, and it’s hard to see them seriously troubling United’s formidable centre-back partnership.

However, l’OM are defensively steady themselves, and not easy to beat: after losing their first two Ligue 1 games, they have been defeated just twice since, although centre-backs Souleymane Diawara and Stéphane M’bia may find more than their match in Berbatov and Rooney, especially over two legs.

If L’OM’s are to progress, their best hope will be to stifle United’s midfield, which has looked less imperious than in recent years. United’s (frankly inexplicable) Premier League unbeaten run was recently ended by struggling Wolves, and l’OM possess far more quality than the Black Country outfit. If Deschamps’ solid three-man midfield can contain Nani, United’s main creative outlet, and if González can recapture his form of last season, l’OM could steal the tie – but this would constitute a considerable upset.

There is nothing Sir Alex Ferguson would want more at the twilight of his career then to lift the European Cup over his head at a packed Wembley Stadium. They start the knockout stages with a tricky trip to the intimidating Stade Velodrome. Andrew Winn North-West football expert and mastermind behind The Lump takes a look at United’s chances.

On paper it may appear as just another Champions League fixture for Sir Alex, but in reality it’s the first match of four away fixtures that could shape Manchester United’s season.

With trips to Wigan, Chelsea and Liverpool all coming up before the 2nd leg in Manchester, Wednesday’s match is a good place to start attesting that strong second-half finishes to the season are not just a worn-out cliché from the media.

United can combat the French side’s impressive home form by boasting a pretty decent away record of their own, recording just two losses from the last 22 European away games; a feat highlighted by the fact that the 22 away games prior to that included 12 losses.

Sir Alex must attempt to register his 100th win in European Cup/ Champions League football whilst missing a host of first-team regulars: defenders Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans, midfielders Ryan Giggs, Anderson, and Ji-Sung Park, and veteran striker Michael Owen were all absent on the flight to France on Tuesday, less than 72 hours after many of Ferguson’s reserve players were lambasted for making hard work of non-league Crawley in their FA Cup fixture.

One highlight from that game, and perhaps this season, is the progression of centre-back Chris Smalling, who is expected to partner Nemanja Vidić for the tie. With the constant injury problems suffered by Ferdinand coupled with Evans’ lack of form, Smalling has found himself as United’s most important summer acquisition, albeit initially as cover for a position that has been a headache for Ferguson for over two years now.

With the defence seemingly patched up, it’s apt that another area of the pitch would start crumbling – the loss of Giggs and Park in particular may not worry a handful of United fans considering the names that can come in, but both men are key to a level of creative vision and industrious performances that are immeasurably important on away nights such as this.

Expect United to start in a 4-5-1 formation keeping the midfield tight with Berbatov as a lone-striker, supported by Rooney and Nani from wide. The alternative would be to have Rooney as a lone striker, however the role is much better suited to the Bulgarian’s style of play, especially considering the absent players who would normally cover the left-sided role. Another option may be to push Evra out of defence and into the left-midfield slot, but his defensive duties would be better suited against Marseille’s flair players.

A strong 1st leg performance should not only put them in good stead for a fifth successive quarter-final appearance, but also bode them well for the crucial run-in of fixtures ahead.

The reverse tie at Old Trafford, a few days after the next round of the FA Cup, would be a lot less tricky to approach should United grab an away goal tonight.

Predicted starting 11: van der Sar, Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Evra, Nani, Scholes, Carrick, Fletcher, Rooney, Berbatov.

StumbleUponRedditShare

2 comments

February 23rd, 2011

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ian Walsh and Andrew Gibney, Juliet Jacques. Juliet Jacques said: Also, I've previewed Olympique de Marseille's Champions League game against Manchester United for @gibfootballshow: http://bit.ly/hRUsxo [...]

February 23rd, 2011

[...] rest is here: Olympique Marseille v Manchester United – Champions League Preview … Related Posts:Olympique de Marseille vs Manchester United: Champions League Preview So to the last [...]

leave a comment