Date:24th February 2011 at 4:09am
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Two of the games finest amatuer dramatists collide

Two of the games finest amateur dramatists collide

Didier Deschamps said before the match that a goalless draw would be a good result for Marseille and that should have sounded as a warning for what followed.

Wednesday night’s Champions League last-16 game between United and the French champions failed to live up to the impressive surroundings of the Stade Vélodrome and the welcome given to the players before kick-off by the home side’s characteristically fervent supporters. The stalemate on the south coast of France will seem like a good result to some but will inevitably bring back memories of the quarter-final tie against Monaco in 1998 for a great many others.

Sir Alex’s surprise decision to select Darron Gibson over Paul Scholes left United with a midfield three that were more about function than finesse. Michael Carrick dropped between Gibson and Darren Fletcher to protect the back four, while Nani and Wayne Rooney supported Dimitar Berbatov but tracked back into midfield when United didn’t have the ball. Ryan Giggs and Anderson had been ruled out of the game and, with Mathieu Valbuena and André-Pierre Gignac missing for Marseille, a match that could have been a very entertaining spectacle became a battle of attrition for both the players and those watching.

It falls upon me, however, to dissect five things we learned from the encounter:

1.    The secret’s out – United can be bland

When Deschamps said United “have a bit less fantasy than we have seen in the past” he was really only voicing what a lot of the club’s fans already knew. It returns us to the debate over the likelihood of Darron Gibson developing into a longstanding presence in midfield that has raged long and hard on Red Flag Flying High lately.

Some fans continue to preach patience – a policy with which I would concur – but those in the media seem to have made up their minds. Speaking before and after the game respectively on the radio, Mark Lawrenson said that the Irishman’s one-gear playing style counts against him while the Telegraph’s Henry Winter asserted that the 23-year-old just isn’t good enough.

Gibson is not overburdened with flair – the one department in which he did excite upon making the first team, long-distance shooting, has become something of an albatross such is the demand for him to replicate it – but he did make two very good raking passes in the first half, first for Nani and then for John O’Shea, that showed great vision.

With that in mind, selling Michael Carrick and retaining Gibson might seem like a sensible transfer strategy. Carrick’s exit would raise a decent fee and the money could be invested in a central player who might, along with the re-emerging Anderson, reinvigorate United’s creative options in the middle as Scholes continues his dignified winding-down process.

2.    Chris Smalling is a Champions League player

As ITV’s Peter Drury and Jim Beglin repeatedly told us during the first half, Wednesday night’s game marked Smalling’s first appearance in a European tie post-Christmas.

The mention of that rather arbitrary statistic reflected the fact that the 21-year-old did not feature in the second half of Fulham’s run to the Europa League final during 2010, although that was in only his second year as a professional and the Londoners had not been in Europe the season before. Nonetheless, after the Marseille match Smalling has now started five games in the continent’s premier club competition for his current employers. More importantly, his performance at the Stade Vélodrome alongside Nemanja Vidić gave another indication as to the rapid progress the defender has been making of late.

After Jonny Evans’ difficult game against Wolves and subsequent injury, Smalling has seized his opportunity with an assured display against City in the derby, an impressive cameo in Saturday’s otherwise embarrassing showing against Crawley, and now a clean sheet in France. It’s no great stretch of the imagination to say that he is playing like Rio at the moment but, given that he is the player that Smalling is filling in for and will probably replace within a year or two, it is still very encouraging to note.

3.    Gabriel Heinze hasn’t changed

The Argentine endured a rapid descent from fan favourite to vilified man while at United, being named the supporters’ player of the year for 2004/05 but then trying to engineer a move to Liverpool two years later after he had lost his place at left back to Patrice Evra.

Lacking the pace that most full backs require and not being as tall as the average centre half, the 32-year-old would seem to be physically unsuitable for a position in defence and yet seems to acquit himself more than adequately thanks to his determination, bravery in the challenge, and canny ability to frustrate opponents. Now in his second season at Marseille following two years with Real Madrid after leaving Old Trafford in 2007, Heinze was charged with shadowing Nani for much of the game and he showed many of the qualities that so endeared him to United’s fans during the middle years of the previous decade.

Nani had one of his quieter matches this season thanks to the attentions of the defender but, although the Portuguese struggled to stay on his feet, that had more to do with his choice of studs than any overtly nefarious play from Heinze. The Argentine’s histrionic on-pitch persona was still evident, however, which meant that for once during a game Nani had competition in that respect from his marker.

4.    United rarely strike lucky in France

Earlier this month I wrote on this site about the last time United played in Marseille, in 1999, when a William Gallas goal gave the French side victory in the first group stage of that season’s Champions League. That defeat is just one of many occasions on which Sir Alex’s side have ventured across the Channel only to return disappointed.

As well as the aforementioned goalless draw in Monaco in 1998 that eventually saw United eliminated on the away goals rule, there have been two draws in Lyon while three matches in Lille have resulted in a win, a draw, and a defeat. Bordeaux were beaten 2-1 in 2000 but, even so, United’s record in France post-1992 is still not the happiest. An away draw against Marseille in the group stage would have represented a good result but the failure to score on Wednesday night means that victory in the second leg at Old Trafford in three weeks’ time is an absolute necessity. Between now and then, expect to hear a lot about David Trezeguet’s goal thirteen years ago.

5.    Never underestimate the puerility of a fan’s sense of humour

You all spotted the name. You all laughed. Rod Fanni might be an experienced 29-year-old right back who’s been capped by France at international level, but that wasn’t enough to stop those watching him play for the first time – myself included – from sniggering every time the commentators mentioned him. He joins Stefan Kuntz, Francisco Arce, Uwe Fuchs, and Rafael Scheidt in the ranks of overseas players to have provoked smug mirth amongst a British audience (and all this from the country that produced Seaman).

The Marseille defender has been repeatedly linked with a move to England throughout his career, with West Ham, Everton, and Newcastle all mooted as possible destinations, so don’t be surprised if Fanni is unveiled at a Premier League ground in the near future.

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