When Didier Deschamps suggested Manchester United lacked the fantasy of old, Sir Alex Ferguson responded they were still capable of producing their fair share of magic. "I take Didier's point – the side that captured the treble was quite special," the United manager said. "But don't underestimate the boys of today."
No one would, not after two more goals from Javier Hernández to cap the surprising events on Saturday against Arsenal, when Ferguson prospered by harnessing all the youthful energy he could get his hands on. Wayne Rooney had one of his best games of the season as the forward focus of the United attack against Marseille, running belligerently and passing with great poise, yet even he was upstaged by the 22-year-old Mexican. Both goals were tap-ins but rarely have United been more grateful for a decisive final touch. "He's easy to play with because he's got great movement," Rooney said appreciatively. "Fortunately he can finish as well."
Finishing was the hard currency of this game. United would be out of Europe had Marseille turned up with anyone half as lively or lethal in front of goal. The visitors were so poor at hitting the target it was tempting to wonder whether Deschamps had been joking when he suggested his strikers would need to be sharp because they might get only three or four chances all night. Marseille had three times that number, and still contrived to miss the lot. Even the goal that set up a tense last 10 minutes was scored by Wes Brown, and although United were relieved to close out the game without further mishap, their chances of progressing further in Europe appear to depend on getting Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic back as soon as possible or being drawn against similarly toothless quarter-final opponents.
United have always liked to live dangerously, yet even with a couple of their uncles in midfield Ferguson's boys of today do not have the look of likely treble winners. The passing resemblance is mainly due to Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, 37 and 36 respectively, still being selected. The old men of 1999 replaced the Da Silva twins as Ferguson put his faith in the old magic. It just about worked, though whereas there was a sense 12 years ago that United were building a momentum that would carry all before them, something of the reverse is happening this time. Talk of a treble is only whispered, amid general disbelief that a stuttering United are still managing to fight on three fronts.
Even when compromised by age and hampered by injury, however, Ferguson knows how to make a bold play. United began at an absurdly high tempo and were rewarded as early as the fifth minute, when Hernández opened the scoring from a move initiated by Rooney and continued by Giggs. Perhaps Ferguson knew Marseille would begin slowly, although he could not have guessed André-Pierre Gignac would waste a wonderful opportunity to bring his side level and seize an early away goal. Struggling to deal with darting runs from Nani, Rooney and Hernández, with Giggs and Scholes spraying passes forward from the halfway line, the French champions initially appeared positively lethargic, an impression they gradually overcame as the pace of the game slowed.
Although United could not relax as long as there was only a single goal in it, they were not exactly pressurised by Souleymane Diawara missing the target with a free header and Loïc Rémy sending a volley over the bar just before the interval. Far from restricting their opponents to three or four chances in the whole game United had allowed three clear sights of goal in the first half.
The second half followed a similar pattern, with Marseille growing into the game if not quite crowding in on Edwin van der Sar. By the time United had lost two more defenders to injury in John O'Shea and his replacement Rafael da Silva, the final quarter settled down into the twitchiest of European contests. United seemed incapable of rediscovering their penetrative edge, Marseille kept breaking through but failing to find a finish. Just after Van der Sar made an important save from Benoît Cheyrou, Antonio Valencia helped settle the matter, weighting his pass perfectly for Giggs to stay onside and supply a square ball for Hernández to tuck away.
Ferguson had got another call right, introducing Valencia to keep up the pace at the expense of a far from overjoyed Nani. Old Trafford breathed a collective sigh of relief, a slightly premature one, as it turned out. This was a satisfyingly exciting European night, though not a particularly convincing one for either side. The old magic worked for Ferguson up to a point – Giggs was involved in both goals after all – though the plan surely cannot have been to keep the two oldest outfield players on the pitch for the whole 90 minutes, then spend the last 10 hanging on.
Another treble is still possible, though Ferguson, like the fans, is probably wise not to bang any drums about it. Deschamps, a Juventus player flattened by the Roy Keane steamroller in 1999, was not as impressed this time round. "Manchester United were not at their best," the Marseille coach lamented glumly. "We feel like we missed a real chance here." Actually, make that about 10 chances.