Manchester United will restart their Champions League campaign with a trip to the Stade Velodrome to face Marseille in the first-leg of the last-16 round encounter.
The English side is the definite favorite, but they face a tough task against a Marseille side who have shed their early-season troubles and have emerged as a highly confident, solid team since the turn of the year. Much credit to that should go to their manager, Didier Deschamps, who found the right balance to accommodate their summer signings - Loic Remy and Andre-Pierre Gignac - up front.
However, Marseille's strength lies in their three-man midfield consisting of Mathieu Valbuena, Benoit Cheyrou and Lucho Gonzalez. Valbuena has been particularly impressive since his move in the summer of 2009 and has caught the eye of big clubs across Europe. His creativity and attacking flair is well complimented by the solid and physical Gonzalez.
Marseille qualified for the knock-out round after finishing second behind Chelsea. In the final game of the group stages, English champions Chelsea had been defeated 1-0 at the Stade Velodrome and United will be wary of the French outfit. However, they were handed a huge blow during their weekend 2-1 victory over Saint-Etienne. Though the win helped them close the gap on league leaders Lille, it came at a cost as all three of their front-men succumbed to injuries at various points of the game. Gignac is expected to be out for a few weeks, while Remy and Brandao will face late fitness tests. Marseille's game could depend on whether the two regain fitness.
While Marseille had their front-three injured during the weekend, Manchester United had the luxury of resting several top players for their 1-0 FA Cup victory over Crawley Town. It was a narrow victory, but a victory all the same.
United have been far from their best this season, but have displayed their resilience all through. They remain the favorites to claim the Premiership title and have a chance for a treble as they are in contention for the FA Cup and the Champions League. Despite a low-scoring group stage, in which they scored just seven goals, they qualified as group winners thanks to their solid defence marshaled by Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
Inevitably, this tie forces the mention of Gabriel Heinze who left United for Real Madrid back in 2007 after a dispute with manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The Argentine moved to Marseille in 2009 and has been an important part of their defence despite his age (32). His battle with Patrice Evra will be particularly interesting as the Frenchman took his place in the United defence five years back and it was this that led to the fallout between Fergie and Heinze. Another subplot to this tie is that this will be Evra's first match in France since his role in his national team's World Cup mutiny, and he could face a backlash from the crowd.
United will be hoping Marseille forwards Remy and Brandao fail their fitness tests, especially because United have their own injury concerns. Center-backs Rio Ferdinand and Johnny Evans did not make the trip due to respective injuries and the 21-year-old Chris Smalling will line-up at the heart of the defence alongside Nemanja Vidic. Veteran Ryan Giggs, who recently extended his contract with the club, is also sidelined with injury along with Michael Owen and Anderson.
It will be a tightly fought tactical battle between the two sides, as neither team will want to be at a disadvantage going into the second leg.
Match Fact -
Having conceded just one goal in Europe this season, United have the best defensive record in the Champions League. In fact, they have only lost two of their 24 European matches against French opposition. They boast an away record of nine wins in their last ten games in the Champions League. Interestingly, Marseille have scored only six goals in ten games against English opposition, and it hasn't been more than a goal a match.
It will be a tactical battle, and both teams will be happy with a 1-1 draw.