The only imperious aspect to Manchester United's victory was the clinching of a quarter-final place in the Champions League for a fifth consecutive season. Apprehension swamped Old Trafford when Wes Brown headed a Mathieu Valbuena corner into his own net with eight minutes remaining. Had Marseille scored once more Sir Alex Ferguson's side would have been eliminated.

None the less, the elusiveness of Javier Hernández, who scored both United goals, epitomised the talent in the ranks, even if much of it went untapped. Marseille were blunt, despite showing more purpose than had been the case in the goalless draw at the Vélodrome. Their manager Didier Deschamps ought really to be despondent that his squad made so little of circumstances when United were in a disrupted state.

Nemanja Vidic, ruled out by a calf injury, joined Rio Ferdinand in missing this fixture. Any jinx reached beyond centre-halves to fell the right-back John O'Shea and his replacement Rafael da Silva. Each succumbed to hamstring trouble. Given such factors, it would be unrealistic to castigate United for lacking rhythm.

Hernández, in any case, compensated for all flaws. On occasion, he was so elusive as to verge on the unmarkable. Ferguson's domain is a harsh place and Dimitar Berbatov's own spree earlier in this campaign is all but forgotten now. The selection of Hernandez reflects reflects the search for balance.

Berbatov and Wayne Rooney, when fielded together, both have the same instinct to act as playmakers as much or more than predators. There is far less of that in Hernández, a man consumed by the bid to be a yard away from his marker at the key instant. The attacker, who now has five goals from his last five appearances, was precious when United did not dare assume that this clean sheet would inevitably be theirs.

Ferguson had little option but to field Chris Smalling and Brown together even though they had recently floundered in the 3-1 defeat at Anfield. Such circumstances indicated that it would be even more prudent than usual to take the game to the opposition. Marseille soon felt the impact.

Wayne Rooney, now in sight of his best form, found Ryan Giggs in the fifth minute and he continued the move with a low cross from the left that was turned in Hernández. A quarter of an hour later the scorer was booked for a foul on the former United defender Gabriel Heinze. That incident embodied the tension in the air and the visitors could have been level a little later had André-Pierre Gignac not shot wildly after being sent clear by a header from André Ayew.

Smalling was caught out then and the home crowd had to ponder the demands being made of a player still acquainting himself with the sport at this level. That sort of incident would have been disquieting enough in itself but on this occasion it was also a superfluous reminder that the make-up of the United defence was not as Ferguson would have wished. In the period before the interval, the hosts were slightly more conservative while Marseille probed a little and started to get a response from the centre-forward Gignac.

Despite that, Didier Deschamps'line-up was afflicted by the same blandness noted at the Vélodrome. They did have one wonderful opportunity in the first-half of this match when the centre-back Soulemayne Diawara, unmarked behind Scholes, headed wide from Taye Taiwo's cross after 36 minutes. At that moment, however, it might have been relevant that O'Shea, down with his hamstring injury, was not in place.

There had been a voluntary alteration, with Ferguson turning to Antonio Valencia in the hope that his running power would tell when Marseille committed themselves to the attack. The visitors, through their own limitations and conservative tactics, were bland throughout the tie.

Even so, no one at all was at ease and Mathieu Valbuena had no sooner been introduced from the bench than he was shown a yellow card. There was no great sign of assurance until United extended the lead in the 76th minute and so ended Marseille's hopes, even if Brown's lapse was to cause some anguish.
That second United goal, despite all the strain on the side, had finesse. Valencia fed a well-weighted pass through on the right and Giggs crossed low for Hernandez to score once again. It had been a night of tension, but the incisiveness of United was a quality that put them beyond the reach of these opponents.

There are more exacting tests ahead, but United should also have some redoubtable figures back in the side by then.