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Feb 25, 2011

Shades of '05 as United fail to inspire

In November 2005, Manchester United played away in Europe on a chilly night at the Stade de France. It was an embarrassing evening for Sir Alex Ferguson's side, as they crashed to a 1-0 defeat to Lille, a result that paved the way for United's first failure to reach the Champions League knockout stages in a decade.

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Five-and-a-half years on and a trip to Marseille's Stade Velodrome left some with a remarkable sense of déjà vu after a Red Devils side bereft of creativity failed to score in France again.

The defeat to Lille was a night of utter despair for United fans, who had an inkling of what lay in store when it was announced that Kieran Richardson, Alan Smith and the then-much-maligned Darren Fletcher would be charged with marshalling the midfield.

It is credit to Fletcher's progress in the intervening years that when United's XI against Marseille was revealed, his name drew a sigh of relief from the United faithful, contrasting sharply with the pained expressions provoked by the inclusion of Darron Gibson in place of Paul Scholes. The Ireland midfielder is certainly in need of an improvement as dramatic as his Scottish team-mate's if he is to avoid the same fate as Messrs Richardson and Smith, who were long ago consigned to the United scrapheap.

Back in 2005, United's talented attacking trio of Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo should have been able to unlock the defence of a Lille side competing in their first ever Champions League campaign. They didn't.

On Wednesday, Rooney, Nani and current Premier League top scorer Dimitar Berbatov should have been able to break through a Marseille defence led by Souleymane Diawara - a player who flopped at Charlton Athletic. They didn't.

Nani exposed Gabriel Heinze's worrying lack of pace in the first half but showed no willingness to take him on in the second, while Rooney dropped deep but failed to conjure any openings and Berbatov cut a lonely figure up top on his own. Just as the front three on that painful night at the Stade de France shouldered some of the blame for failing to inspire a breakthrough, so should United's 2011 vintage. But, just like 2005, it was United's midfield that was really the problem against Marseille.

While Barca's dream ticket of Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta provide enough moments of creativity between them to fill the Guggenheim museum, Ferguson's not-so-holy trinity of Fletcher, Carrick and Gibson would struggle to find recognition on their parents' fridges.

Yes, United were suffering from injuries - Ryan Giggs and Anderson would surely have played if fit - but the team is crying out for someone to pull the strings in midfield the way Paul Scholes used to in his heyday. Ferguson must cast envious glances towards an Arsenal side boasting Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Jack Wilshere, and the Red Devils boss is surely considering swooping for a player like Javier Pastore, Marek Hamsik or Wesley Sneijder to fill his ever-widening midfield void.

The incisive passing ability that once led observers to laud Carrick as United's 'Quarterback' appears to have totally deserted him, though he has well and truly mastered the art of innocuous sideward and backwards passing; the former Tottenham midfielder's days at Old Trafford are surely numbered and a summer move awaits.

Then there is Darron 'the thunderbolt' Gibson. He may have earned a reputation for scoring long-range screamers but it is difficult to see what, if anything, he offers to the team. He has gone from commanding the Moss Road pitch as the leading light of United's reserve team to an anonymous figure who is still dwarfed by the talent of the ageing Scholes. He floats around the pitch aimlessly, drowning in the pressure of playing for the club, and on the French coast he was floundering again.

Last under the microscope is Fletcher, though he escapes the criticism afforded to his mediocre team-mates. Like them, he failed to provide a spark of creativity against Marseille but, then again, it is not in his job description. He remains an integral part of United's engine room and is simply in desperate need of an inventive partner who can provide the perfect foil to his battling, harassing style.

The Lille game in 2005 seems a world away from the level he is at now and there were few fans that night who would have predicted the influence he would go on to have on the team. That match came days after the infamous Roy Keane rant, when Fletcher was reportedly one of the chief targets - ''I can't understand why people in Scotland rave about Darren Fletcher'' - of the former United captain's vitriol.

At the Stade de France he was ridiculed by travelling fans, who sarcastically chanted 'Darren Fletcher is a football genius' (words now repeated with sincerity) throughout. His response, though, was immediate as a match-winning goal and all-action display in the next game against reigning champions Chelsea signalled the start of his development into a prominent player.

Now, as then, the personnel on show had a major role in an uninspiring European performance, but Ferguson's philosophy must also come under scrutiny. At the Stade Velodrome, the United faithful may have been saved from swallowing the bitter pill of defeat, however they were forced to suffer through another 90 minutes of the sort of mundane football that has come to represent away days in Europe over recent years.

There are a smattering of exceptions - a 2-0 victory at the Stadio Olimpico in 2008, a 3-1 dismantling of Arsenal in 2009 and a 3-2 defeat of AC Milan at the San Siro last season proving particularly memorable - but dull discipline has generally been the order of the day. It is a tactic that Ferguson has perfected over the years and three away wins from three group games this season, along with knockout stage victories over Barcelona in 2008 and Inter Milan in 2009, would appear to vindicate the wily Scot's approach.

But the history books show that playing a negative brand of football on the European mainland has not always paid off for Ferguson, especially when the stakes are raised. United have failed to score away from home in nine away games in the Champions League knockout stages since 1992 and were eliminated from the competition on six of those occasions - falling to Galatasaray (1994), Dortmund (1997), Monaco (1998), Real Madrid (2000) and AC Milan (2003 and 2008).

The halcyon days of the Treble winning season - the 6-2 thrashing of Brondby, 3-3 thriller at the Nou Camp and dramatic 3-2 semi-final victory in Turin - seem long gone and, worryingly, the dreary displays prevalent in continental away games have also been evident on United's Premier League travels this season. Fans are forced to endure yawn-inducing football, spending vast sums on trekking across the UK and Europe when buying several crates of Night Nurse would be a more cost-effective alternative.

The club's supporters would certainly never place lofty ideals of fantasy football ahead of results and tangible silverware, but the success that an expansive approach on the road brought in the past, most notably in 1999, leads one to question why Ferguson isn't tempted to turn to it again? If United continue to win, then things will undoubtedly remain the same, but should poor away displays be responsible for the club falling short again in the Champions League or missing out on the Premier League title, Sir Alex may be forced to have a rethink.


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