Patrice Evra returns to France for his first match in his home country since captaining their debacle at the World Cup in South Africa. Will he receive a hostile reception? (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
On Wednesday evening, Barclays Premier League leader Manchester United travel to Stade Velodrome to take on Olympique de Marseille in the first leg of a UEFA Champions League match-up. United qualified for the first round of the knock-out stages by going unbeaten in group play and finishing on top; while Marseille earned their passage by finishing second to Chelsea FC in their group. The Velodrome is home to some of most vociferous supporters in Europe, as the 60,031-person-capacity stadium can be an intimidating and electric venue for important matches. A European night will undoubtedly merit such an atmosphere. The reigning French champions currently sit 3rd in the Ligue 1 table and they are the only French club ever to lift the Champions League trophy (1993). Current Marseille manager, Didier Deschamps, led that '93 Marseille side to the Champions League title as captain.
Marseille come into the tie with significant injury concerns. In their most recent match vs St-Ettiene, Marseille's 2-1 victory came at a high cost; attackers Andre-Pierre Gignac, Loic Remy, and Brandao were all forced to come off due to injury. Gignac, who Marseille paid 14.7 million-pounds for this past summer, has been their most prolific and in-form attacker as of late, and he has already been ruled out for the match versus United due to a slight quadriceps tear. Remy, who the French club paid just over 11 million-pounds for last summer, suffered a knock on his ankle in the same match, but he's expected to be available. Brandao's status is uncertain after he too suffered a knock on his ankle versus St-Ettiene. In addition, French international Mathieu Valbuena has been ruled out due to a knee injury. Futhermore, center-back Stephane M'Bia and right-back Rod Fanni both didn't play in the St-Ettiene match due to hamstring injuries, although both appear to be available for Wednesday evening's tie. To say the least, Deschamps has a major injury problems.
*UPDATE #3* According 'La Provence,' both Remy and Brandao are fit to play, and Gignac is not.
A tactical preview and a closer look at United after the jump...
Marseille typically play in a '4-3-3' shape, but the French club's injuries might force Deschamps into considering a tactical shift. Brandao typically leads the line in the attack, and likes to drift left. Gignac has been a terror as of late cutting in from the left flank, but he likely will be replaced by Andre Ayew. Remy has good pace and is often employed on the right flank in attack, but he can also be used centrally if Brandao isn't able to go. Jordan Ayew is another attacking option as well, and he can be used on either flank in the attack if he's called upon due to injuries.
In the midfield band of three, Lucho Gonzalez is Marseille's most attack-minded. The Argentinian was an influential part of Marseille's league title last season, but his form hasn't been to the same caliber this season. However, in a recent match versus Sochaux, Deshamps employed two holding-midfielders, Edouard Cisse and Charles Kabore, behind Gonzalez and he played well after being freed up to attack. Keeping tabs on the playmaker will need to be a key focus for United, likely a job that will be tasked to United midfielder Darren Fletcher.
Because of the injuries to M'Bia and Fanni that kept them out in Marseille's last match, Kabore was moved back into the defense at right-back. If Fanni is unavailable again, then expect Kabore to fill in there once again, and look for Benoit Cheyrou to fill in as a central midfielder. Former United defender Gabriel Heinze is first choice at left-back, but he was forced to fill in last match at center-back for M'Bia. If that's the case again, look for Heinze to once again shift to the center with Taye Taiwo filling in at left-back. Goalkeeper Steve Mandanda is the club skipper and he has started every match this season.
In the group stages, Marseille defeated Chelsea 1-0 at the Velodrome, and they caused Chelsea problems with high pressure and pressing high up the pitch. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson should anticipate similar tactics, as the underdog French side will undoubtedly receive an energy boast from an anticipated frenzied crowd. United typically play with a '4-3-3/4-5-1' shape in "big matches," and even more so when away from Old Trafford. This becomes an even more like a possibility because of Marseille's three-man central midfield. The only two scenarios where I could see Fergie going with a '4-4-2' would be in an effort to either (1) accommodate striker Dimitar Berbatov, who has sat out the last two matches for United and (2) if he strongly anticipated Marseille switching their shape due to the many injuries to attacking players.
United have some injury concerns as well. Long-term ailments continue to make Owen Hargreaves and Antonio Valencia unavailable, although the latter has recently resumed training with the reserves. Park Ji-Sung is unavailbe for the next four weeks due to a hamstring injury. Michael Owen is questionable after a groin injury suffered in training last week. Center-backs Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans are questionable as well due to a calf injury and ankle knock, respectively.
*UPDATE* Anderson has a knee injury, and may miss two months. Thus, the Brazilian midfielder is unavailable for this match. I see two possibilities here if United play in a '4-3-3' shape: (1) Giggs moves to the central midfield, Berbatov up front centrally, and Rooney on the left flank in the attacking band. These three have linked up well all season. Fletcher and Scholes sitting deeper, with Giggs higher up in a creator's role. This could even resemble a '4-2-3-1'. (2) Carrick just steps in a 'like-for-like' switch for Ando, but likely plays deeper. Darron Gibson is the least likely possibility. Keep checking in, I'll update as we hear more.
*UPDATE #2* Ryan Giggs has failed to board the plane to Marseille and will not be available to play on Wednesday. Also, it has been confirmed that Rio Ferdinand will not play as well, as the defender also failed to travel with the club to Marseille. This likely results in an attacking band of Berbatov centrally, flanked by Rooney on the left and Nani on the right. Carrick is the most likely to join Fletcher and Scholes in the central midfield, although Gibson remains a possibility. As for Marseille, it appears that there's a possibility that midfielder Mathieu Valbuena may be available. With Marseille's apparent lack of options at striker due to injury, this could result in a formation change for the French club.
It's difficult to fathom keeping a healthy 20 goal-scorer out of the starting XI for three consecutive games, but that's what I'm anticipating. I expect Berbatov to be brought on at some point if United is in need of goal, and for him to be featured for 90 minutes on Saturday at Wigan. I think Wayne Rooney will lead the line once again, and be flanked in the attack by Nani and Ryan Giggs. I anticipate Paul Scholes to be the deep-lying playmaker from the central-midfield, and for him to be partnered by Fletcher in a box-to-box role. Anderson could be the third central-midfielder and play higher up the pitch than Scholes or Fletcher. Michael Carrick is a possibility as well. If Ferdinand is indeed out, then the back four will be likely feature Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling, and John O'Shea. Although, Rafael may get the call over O'Shea. Here is a possible lineup for the match:
*NOTE* Lineup projection has been altered from the original due to Anderson's injury announcement, and the news that Giggs didn't travel with the club to France. Keep checking in for updates, as injury concerns are further clarified ahead of the match.
If Berbatov is put into the starting XI in a '4-3-3' shape, then expect to him lead the attacking line in the center. This would likely would Rooney out wide to the left and Nani on the right. Giggs could possibly even be moved to the center midfield in a playmaking role next to Fletcher and Scholes.
* Keys to the match:
- Heinze has lost a lot of pace, this should be a big mismatch for Nani to exploit. Heinze, like most left-backs, will not likely be able to contain Nani one-on-one. If Heinze requires cover from Kabore or Cisse, then the Portuguese winger needs to play smart and quickly re-direct the point of attack as there will then be a deficiency somewhere else on the pitch for Marseille.
* Rooney's movement, if he leads the line, will be important. If Marseille plays with the mentality of an underdog, and also use two holding midfielders, their defense will be compact and difficult to break down. Rooney will need to do what he typically does, and use his movement to drag defenders out of position. This will create space and channels for playmakers such as Nani and Giggs to operate in.
* Marseille generally play very fluid; heat maps from past matches for Marseille indicate fluid interplay and cohesion between their attackers. Communication for the United defense will be vital, and Smalling must be careful not to be dragged out of position. If need be, Smalling needs to be aware when to drop off attackers to O'Shea, Scholes, or Fletcher. If Brandao plays, Smalling must be aware of his drifting tendencies to the left flank.
* Width: Quite simply, this is the key to the attack for United in every match. United don't have enough consistency high up the pitch in central midfield, so the most effective point of attack are the wide players. There should be space for this versus Marseille's shape, and O'Shea and Evra need to get forward and provide support in the attack.
* Scholes, and probably more Fletcher, need to be aware of Gonzalez at all times. He drifts between the midfield and attack, and roams as a playmaker. He can be a handful.
*Odds: Marseille 9/4, Draw 11/5, Man United 11/10
*Prediction: Marseille 1-2 United