Having coasted through the group stage undefeated with just one goal conceded you would be forgiven for thinking United didn’t bother to get out of first gear but now that we’ve entered the ‘serious part’ of the competition expect United to become a different animal.
United have a love-hate relationship with Europe; we were the first English team to compete in the European Cup (after Chelsea were banned from doing so in the inaugural competition) and it was returning from a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade that the Munich air disaster took place.
We were also the first English team to win the competition when, ten years after the Munich air disaster, Sir Matt Busby’s team raised the trophy after defeating a Eusebio inspired Benfica at Wembley. It is only right that as the competition’s final is again held at Wembley, United are one of the teams competing at the home of English football.
With Liverpool’s five European Cups a constant reminder of our underachievement in continental football, the Champions League remains the final frontier for United. We are in good shape in pursuit of title number 19, finally putting Liverpool to bed as England’s biggest team domestically. But the fact we trail behind in terms of European Cup wins is something that does irk United fans.
Champions League triumphs in 1999 and 2008 were awesome achievements especially in how they occurred but looking back at us in Europe in recent history there have been some serious disappointments.
One man who was part of that previous success, Roy Keane, explained the underachievement, saying:
“People look back on my career and think the injuries and leaving the Ireland team at the World Cup were the disappointments. None of that stuff comes into it.
“The biggest disappointments were the games we lost in Europe. The years when we just got sucked into the bull. ‘The final is in Glasgow this season, the manager’s home city,’ as if that entitled us to a break. ‘The final’s at Old Trafford this season, made for us.’ People got sucked into that.”
And he was right. Some of those European nights were heart wrenching. The loss to a inferior Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, losing to an unheralded Porto in 2004, even going out of the competition in the group stage in 05/06 will stick in our craws as much as those glorious nights in Turin, Barcelona and more recently Moscow.
Our last two forays into Europe can be looked at with mixed emotions. Up until the final in 2009 our campaign was great but the abject performance against Barca in Rome completely overshadows everything. It wasn’t the United we know so, when Sir Alex said he knew where we went wrong and planned to rectify the matter, I for one believed him.
The following season we again looked good but there will be a massive sense of disappointment in how we went out to Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals as a combination of Wayne Rooney’s ankle injury in the first leg, a moment of inexperience from Rafael and a moment of magic from Arjen Robben saw us again denied on European football’s biggest stage. The loss to Bayern was a hard one to swallow because, like in 2004 with the loss to Porto, I genuinely believe had we won that game our path to the trophy would not have been a particularly hard one.
So this year as we take on Marseille, the thoughts of previous campaigns will be firmly in the head of Sir Alex and the players.
Last week Spurs and Arsenal set the barrier with their impressive victories over AC Milan and Barcelona respectively and whilst our tie doesn’t have the same hype surrounding it as our opponents are not as glamorous, Marseille won’t be a walkover.
The French champions have a record 7-0 away win over Zilina as well as a win over Chelsea under their belts in the competition this season, showing that there is a certain mettle to them and United will be travelling to something of a fortress in the Stade Vélodrome. Marseille haven’t been defeated there in 12 games picking up nine wins and three draws since losing 1-0 to Spartak Moscow in September.
As well as a stellar home record we are facing a team in form. Since their shock defeat to second tier team Évian Thonon Gaillard FC in the French Cup on January 9th, Marseille haven’t been defeated in 6 games with 5 wins and a draw.
Looking at these facts it doesn’t bode well especially considering our last trip there.
United last faced Marseille in Europe in the group stage of the 99/00 competition and whilst we beat them at Old Trafford 2-1, our trip to France saw us defeated 1-0 with the solitary goal coming from a young William Gallas.
Gallas’ goal handed United their first defeat in the competition since losing to Juventus in 1997 so Sir Alex will be hoping there is no repeat performance. Didier Deschamps will be missing Brandão and André-Pierre Gignac so Marseille will face a tall order in replicating their win. There is hope though, as reported United target and goal scorer in France’s victory over England last November, Mathieu Valbuena could return from a knee injury in time for our visit as could Loïc Rémy.
We too have injury worries of our own with seven players including Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Anderson being left at home but of the party that travelled I can still see Sir Alex fashioning a team capable of beating Marseille.
Beating Marseille on Wednesday won’t make us champions but it will take us a step closer to the final. With Barca’s qualification in the balance we could very well find ourselves in a great position to again win the trophy if Arsenal do what was considered mission impossible a few weeks ago.
We know that we haven’t achieved as much as we should have in Europe even if our recent record shows a win and a trip to the final. Wednesday is the ideal opportunity to signal our own intentions and show that we remain in the hunt for a trophy that so many were happy to hand over to Barcelona before they had even kicked a ball.
I don’t see us failing to get a result at Old Trafford so a win in France more or less guarantees qualification for us and with a plethora of tough games coming up we could do with easing the pressure on ourselves in the business end of the season.
Many of our fans are more concerned with United ‘knocking Liverpool off their perch’ and finally getting league title number 19 but secretly we, as well as Sir Alex, will want the Champions League just as much.
STV are showing a live video stream of Olympique de Marseille v Manchester United, which you can watch on stv.tv/sport from 7.30pm tonight. You can also join in with their live chat, speaking to fellow fans simultaneously as the game is being played.