On Tuesday evening, Manchester United FC will host Olympique de Marseille at Old Trafford in the return leg of their UEFA Champions League knock-out stage fixture. The two sides played to an uneventful 0-0 draw three weeks back at Stade Velodrome as neither side proved to be a genuine attacking threat in that match. United failed to score a crucial away goal in Marseille and if the away side score any goals at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, the Red Devils will have do Marseille one better in order to earn passage to their 5th straight Champions League quarter-final.
Manchester United: United come into the match on top of the table in the Barclays Premier League by three points over Arsenal, however, the Gunners have a game in hand. The Reds also have earned passage to the FA Cup semi-final by defeating the same Arsenal side this past Saturday. However, prior to that match, United were suffering from their first losing streak of the season after away defeats by Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC. Although the treble is still a possibility for the English football giant, inconsistent form has prevented any serious discussion of the possible feat. In the Champions League this season, United remain unbeaten and have only conceded a single goal in seven matches. However, a draw involving any amount of goals on Tuesday will result in United being eliminated from the competition. Thus, the home side will need to find a way to improve on their attacking during the competition, as United have only netted seven goals in seven Champions League matches.
Injuries are a major concern for the club. It appears that Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick will be unavailable for the clash. In addition, Nani, Rio Ferdinand, Owen Hargreaves, and Anderson continue to be injured and none are available to be called upon by manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Park Ji-sung, Michael Owen, and Jonny Evans have failed to make recent any appearances due to injury and their status is either uncertain or doubtful. The massive quantity of injuries forced Sir Alex to field a side with seven defenders in this past Saturday's FA Cup tie with Arsenal. There is a bit of good news though; Antonio Valencia made his return from a severely broken leg in that Saturday match and played the entire 2nd half while Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were able to be mostly rested. It's likely that all three will be featured during Tuesday night's match.
*UPDATE* (18:04 GMT, March 14) Nani and Carrick are both likely to be available against Marseille. On the club's website, Sir Alex Ferguson was quoted as saying "There's a good chance Nani will be involved. He trained on Sunday along with Carrick. That's a better situation than we had at the weekend. Both will be involved on Tuesday night." Here's our latest injury report.
Marseille: The southern French club come into the match sitting 4th in the Ligue 1 table, but just four points back of league leader Lille OSC. Since Marseille's game versus United on February 23, the French side have been involved in three league ties; two of which resulted in victory and one that resulted in defeat to Lille. Also during this time, Marseille have been dealing with a media frenzy that has resulted from striker Brandao being arrested on suspicion of sexual assaulting a 23-year-old woman. The Brazilian has since been released from custody and he's been allowed to return to his native Brazil, thus, the club will be without the striker who was featured when these two sides last met. The adversity the club has recently faced on the pitch after their loss to Lille and off the pitch in relation to Brandao has led to many observers wondering if the current French champions will be able to avoid losing focus and confidence. Advancing to the quarter-final of the Champions League would answer those concerns.
Besides Brandao's current unavailability, Marseille appear to have a mostly full-strength side. France international Mathieu Valbuena, who only made a brief appearance in the first leg due to fitness and health concerns, should be available to start for manager Didier Deschamps. Valbuena made an appearance as a substitute in his side's most recent match at Rennes and all indications are that he is recovered from an injured knee.
Tactical Review of the 1st leg: Here's my full review from the 0-0 draw at Stade Velodrome. Here are a few bullet-point summary notes:
* Formation shape: '4-3-3' (United) vs '4-2-3-1' (Marseille)
* Neither side dominated and neither side were able to threaten with genuine scoring chances. Each side had stretches in the match where they were the better side, but in general, the match was fairly even. United completed 497 passes at a 80% completion rate while Marseille completed 449 passes at a 81% completion rate. With each side deploying three central midfielders, much of the match was contested in the center area of the pitch. However, neither side's central midfielders could come up with any sort of creative vision or ability to unlock the defenses. United received a lift late in the match when Scholes came on as a substitute to complete 24 out of 25 pass attempts in a 17-minute span. Chalkboard courtesy of Total Football's iPhone app:
* Marseille troubled United throughout the middle portions of the match when the home side decided to press higher up the pitch. This continually disrupted United as this was arguably the most significant tactical factor in the match and it was magnified by the inability of Carrick, Fletcher, and Gibson to relieve pressure with incisive and direct passes. The French side fed off the energy of their vociferous supporters and continually won the ball higher up the pitch that United did. The introduction of Scholes and his technical genius was able to help United deal with this pressure towards the latter stages of the first leg.
* Marseille's interceptions in United's half mostly occurred on the French club's left side, which also related to Marseille being most effective down that side in attack throughout the match. Andre Ayew's movement and quickness caused some trouble at times for United's defense, particularly right-back John O'Shea.
* Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling were outstanding for United and they did well to communicate and deal with the fluid interchanging movement of Brandao and Ayew. The center-back pairing were a big reason Marseille's attack continually fell apart in the final third of attack.
* United's three attackers Wayne Rooney, Nani, and Dimitar Berbatov were ineffective; this mostly could be attributed to that they weren't able to link up with the midfield due to the lack of incisive passing of the central midfield because they were inept in being able to deal with Marseille's high pressure.
In Marseille's most recent match at Rennes, Gabriel Heinze was moved from his usual role of left-back to center-back because according to reports, Deschamps was concerned with his lack of pace on the flank. Taye Taiwo at left-back offers more pace to get forward in support of the attack and the Nigerian has the ability to strike from distance. The result of Heinze tucking in centrally moved Stephane M'Bia from center-back to a role of defensive midfielder. My best guess is that the Marseille continues with this change, but if they don't, then M'Bia is likely to move back to center-back with Heinze at left-back. Further up the pitch, Lucho Gonzalez will be featured centrally in a play-making role. The only question remains as to where Deschamps deploys Valbuena. The France international could join Lucho in the center and provide Marseille with two creative players there, or Valbuena could be tasked on the right flank in attack. With Brandao out, Loic Remy is likely to lead the attacking line in the center, but he could also be tasked on the right flank if Valbuena plays centrally. This likely would result in Andre-Pierre Gignac leading the line in center. Expect to see Marseille in a '4-3-3' shape, or in a similar '4-2-3-1' if Deschamps decides to deploy two holding players in support of Lucho.
With the significant injury concerns that United have, guessing their lineup and shape is a tricky task. Smalling will deputize again for Ferdinand and pair with Vidic at center-back. They'll be joined in defense by Patrice Evra and likely Rafael if O'Shea is asked to play again as a defensive midfielder as he did versus Arsenal on Saturday. Scholes will be featured along with Giggs, but with the lack of central midfield options, the normally wide-positioned Welshman could be asked to play centrally in an attacking role. Rooney could be asked to play in a number of roles: on the left flank, in a deeper central position as a central attacking midfielder, or to lead the line in attack as it's fulcrum. If Valencia is deemed to be fit and able to provide more than 45 minutes, he'll likely be asked to start on the right flank. If he's only fit to be a substitute, it's possible that the United boss could use Giggs on the right and Rooney on the left; each would be inverted wingers as they were in the 2nd half versus Liverpool. Because I anticipate that Sir Alex will use either a '4-3-3/4-5-1' or '4-2-3-1' shape, in order to prevent from being overrun in the central midfield due to a continual '3 v 2' situation there, I think that Darron Gibson will be included. The North Irishman is the only other natural central midfielder available besides Scholes and his energy could prove useful. I also wouldn't be terribly surprised to see United play in a '4-4-2' shape though. With the current available information available, here's a guess at a projected lineup:
*UPDATE* With the recent news that Nani and Carrick are set to face Marseille, I can envision a lineup where Scholes and Carrick operate as double pivots in a '4-2-3-1' with Rooney as the central attacking midfielder. With fitness concerns for both Nani and Valencia as they return from injury, it's possible that one starts and plays as long as he can while the other comes on as a substitute. Here's a possible '4-2-3-1' lineup:
*Tactical Keys to the Match:
Because lineup guesses are difficult, especially on United's end, only a discussion in general terms can realistically be had:
- Whoever scores first will have a tremendous impact on how the rest of the match plays out. If Marseille open the scoring, then United will full out attack as they'll be forced to score at least two goals in order to advance to the Champions League quarter-final. This will also likely result in Marseille "parking the bus" as they'll be aware that conceding a single goal can still result in them advancing in this scenario. If United score first, Marseille will be forced to attack more and you might see Deschamps make an attack-minded substitution. Tactics will drastically shift after one side scores.
- The likely inclusion of Scholes should help ignite the United attack. If O'Shea shields the defense as a holding player, he'll also be able to provide protection for Scholes, which should free up the midfield maestro to spray diagonal balls to the flanks. Gibson's energy could also be useful and if the 23 year-old gains confidence and links well with Scholes and the attack, he's capable of providing that killer pass to unlock the defense or fire a long-range strike on goal.
- Again, if O'Shea does play in the midfield, his defensive ability and deep-positioning could provide cover and free Evra and Rafael to get forward into the attack.
- Vidic and Smalling must communicate well and pass off the fluid attackers of Marseille if need be in order to prevent from being dragged out of position. If they don't, Lucho and Valbuena have the vision and technical ability to unlock the defense in an exposed channel or behind them.
- It's unclear if either Berbatov or Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez will start, but Chicharito might be better suited to a substitute's role for this occasion. If the match goes 120 minutes, then Chicharito's pace and movement will be even more threatening to a tired Marseille defense. Furthermore, if Marseille do bag an early goal, Chicharito can quickly come on and allow Sir Alex to immediately shift his tactics by having another striker at his disposal.
Odds: Manchester United 1/2, Draw 3/1, Marseille 6/1
Prediction: United 2-1 Marseille