In three weeks’ time the Champions League resumes, the point in the calendar that has increasingly come to mark the beginning of the football season’s climactic final chapter.
The league table has taken shape, the FA Cup is underway, and European football enters its knockout phase. It’s at this part of the year that Manchester United fans relish the way one big game follows another. As football’s clichés go, one of the more enjoyable to hear repeated is that the last few months of the season are habitually when United kick on.
United’s opponents in the last 16 of the Champions League are Marseille. The French champions are currently only fifth in Ligue Un, eight points off Lille at the top, but they beat Chelsea in their European group and eventually progressed behind the Londoners as runners-up. While United are rightly favourites to make it through to the quarter-finals, Didier Deschamps’ side pose a significant threat.
It’s also worth remembering that when the clubs last faced each other, in the first group stage just over eleven years ago, l’OM would have eliminated United had it been a knockout tie.
The Champions League had been restructured in 1999, incorporating eight extra teams and temporarily gaining an additional group stage as a result. It was a short-lived format that meant teams had to play at least seventeen games if they were to collect the trophy. United began the defence of their trophy by contesting a group with Croatia Zagreb, Sturm Graz, and Marseille. The French team had gained entry to the Champions League for the first time since the match-fixing shame of the early nineties that permanently sullied their triumph in the then recently rebranded competition in 1993.
Marseille visited Old Trafford on 29th September as group leaders. Rolland Courbis’ men had won both of their opening games while United had dropped two points against Zagreb. The team Courbis selected featured a host of names either already familiar to the home fans or those soon destined to be. Fabrizio Ravanelli was Marseille’s big-name striker and William Gallas their promising 22-year-old defender, with Stephane Dalmat lining up in midfield. On the bench was Robert Pires, who would join Arsenal at the end of the season.
It was another man familiar to Premier League fans who got the goal that put Marseille in front. Ibrahim Bakayoko had been at Everton the previous season, scoring seven goals in 28 appearances, before returning to French football less than a year after moving to Merseyside. After 41 minutes, the Ivorian forward picked a dawdling Henning Berg’s pocket, ran on goal, and smashed the ball past Raimond van der Gouw despite Jaap Stam’s best efforts. United dominated the game as they chased an equaliser – with the understanding between Andrew Cole and Dwight Yorke to the fore – but the score remained 1-0 until eleven minutes from time.
Defeat would have left United on four points from three games, seriously threatening their progress in the competition, so Sir Alex Ferguson threw on Teddy Sheringham after 77 minutes to join Cole, Yorke, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the pitch.
The resulting comeback was suitably reminiscent of events in Barcelona four months earlier even if the identities of the scorers were different. Denis Irwin was clattered out on the right flank and the resulting free-kick was taken by David Beckham, who floated the ball into the area. Stam headed it back across goal and Cole pulled off a spectacular overhead kick. “Shades of Denis Law,” said Clive Tyldesley, accurately enough.
The game swung conclusively in United’s favour four minutes later. Dwight Yorke nodded the ball into Paul Scholes’ path in the box, who prodded it past Stephane Porato in the Marseille goal but then lost his footing. The carrot-topped maestro was not to be denied though, scooping the ball into the net anyway. United won the game and, as a result, displaced their opponents at the top of the group.
The return fixture was in France three weeks later, however, and would see Marseille get their revenge. United struggled throughout the game on a rain-drenched pitch at the Stade Vélodrome. Mark Bosnich, returning for van der Gouw in goal, saved from Robert Pires in the first half while Ravanelli flashed a free-kick inches wide of the Australian’s post. Following another Ravanelli miss, the breakthrough for the French side came after 69 minutes. Gallas – of all people – played a one-two with Dalmat – again, of all people – and lashed the ball beyond Bosnich. Even if the design of Marseille’s iconic stadium means it doesn’t have a roof to raise, about 55,000 people present in the crowd did their best that night.
Marseille’s victory put them back in pole position in the group but they would contrive to collect only one point from their remaining two games. Meanwhile, United beat Zagreb and Graz to eventually top the table. Both sides advanced to the second group stage, the extra set of six games that UEFA had dictated clubs should play before the tournament became a straight knockout. The Reds’ defeat in France had been their first in the Champions League since losing a dead-rubber to Juventus in December 1997 but they were beaten by Fiorentina in the first group game of the next round.
They recovered to finish top on thirteen points but were then knocked out 3-2 on aggregate by Real Madrid in the quarter-finals. Marseille’s European campaign ended at the second group stage with a last-place finish behind Lazio, Chelsea, and Feyenoord.