As much of an issue as we’ve had winning away from home in the Premier League in this very un-Manchester United-like season, by comparison, we would appear to be a veritable juggernaut continentally.
Okay, that would be a stretch of the truth if you’ve seen any of those matches, but the bare fact is that we had as many wins in three Champions League group stage away matches as we’ve had in four times as many away matches in the Premier League.
We may not have been able to win at Birmingham, Wolves, or Bolton, but in trips to Valencia, Bursaspor, and Rangers, we came away unbeaten, untied, and most of all, unscored upon.
We’ll have three chances on the trot to improve our away ledger in the league, but first things first, United visit Marseille looking to replicate the achievements of their three English counterparts in the Champions League and claim a first-leg win in their round of 16 tie.
At the very least, the mission in this situation is to net an away goal to lessen the task in the second leg, and the numbers are in favor of United being able to do just that.
This is the third time in five seasons that United have faced French opposition in the round of 16, and each time, we’ve traveled to France for the first leg. And in both of the previous two trips, we nabbed the helpful away goal, winning 1-0 at Lille in February 2007 courtesy of Ryan Giggs’ controversial late free kick and earning a 1-1 draw at Lyon the next year thanks to
Current Traitor’s Carlos Tevez’s 87th minute equalizer.
This season, United have had a total of 18 away matches (12 Premier League, 3 Champions League, 2 Carling Cup, 1 FA Cup), and they’ve notched a goal in 14 of those 18 matches. I don’t know about you, but I like my chances when the percentages are in the upper 70s.
On top of that, United haven’t been blanked away from home in the Champions League in their last 10 matches. The last time United were blanked away from home in Europe, excluding the defeat against Barcelona in the neutral venue of the Stadio Olimpico in May 2009, was when we played out a goalless draw against Inter in the first leg of our round of 16 that season.
After winning their first Ligue 1 title in almost two decades, Marseille stumbled out of the gate this season, dropping their first two league matches and repeating the feat in their first two Champions League group stage matches at home to Spartak Moscow and at Chelsea.
Since the early stumbles, they’ve been more like the side they were expected to be. They finished out the group stage with four wins on the trot, including a home win over Chelsea on the final matchday, to lock up second spot in Group F behind our fierce rivals, have qualified for the final of the Coupe de la Ligue, and are in the thick of a cramped-as-usual Ligue 1 title race.
Coming into today, Marseille have won their last three league matches, including a 2-1 win over St. Etienne on Saturday, and they now sit third, four points behind Lille with 14 matches remaining.
Though they’re in excellent form at the moment, we’re getting them at a good time, as they’re currently dealing with a myriad of injury issues to key players, which makes it easier to deal with the knowledge that we’ll be without Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, and Anderson for today’s match, on top of the absences we were already dealing with.
Strike Andre-Pierre Gignac has been in top form lately after a Rooney-like start to the season, scoring five in six in all competitions, but he’ll be out after injuring his groin late in the win over St. Etienne. Pint-sized playmaker Mathieu Valbuena is in a race to be fit after being sidelined for the last month, and strikers Loic Remy and Brandao are both not 100%. Valbuena started training on Sunday and has declared himself fit, but his words might well fall on deaf ears if Didier Deschamps is looking at the big picture.
Even with the absences and nicks, Marseille will pose a threat, with former Porto star Lucho Gonzalez and talented young Ghana international Andre Ayew both capable of causing serious problems. Of course, you can’t expect them to take too many risks, because the last position they’d like to find themselves in is going to Old Trafford with the tie already all but decided.
It remains to be seen whether Fergie will elect to play both Rooney and Berbatov up front or if one of the two will go it alone, but with a midfield woefully short of fit and decent options, we might well be forced into something that resembles a 4-4-2.
All five of our away goals in the group stage were scored in the second half, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to continue that trend today. Marseille, even with Rod Fanni and Stephane M’Bia both dealing with hamstring concerns, are going to do all they can to bar the door, but we certainly have the firepower to break them down in the end, even if it requires calling on our Mexican supersub to do so in the final 15-20 minutes, also known as Chicharito Time (hmm, perhaps I should trademark that before anyone else does…).
I make no guarantees on entertainment value, but I do hope for something more watchable than Saturday’s frustration fest against Crawley Town. But even if I’m bored into a stupor, I won’t mind as long as there’s an away goal in there somewhere, and there will be.