Sir Alex Ferguson spoke of the "fantastic atmosphere" and "incredible support" he expects to encounter at Olympique de Marseille's Stade Vélodrome after Manchester United FC drew the French champions in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.
Sir Alex led the Reds out against Marseille in the 1999/2000 UEFA Champions League first group stage, winning 2-1 at home but losing 1-0 to Rolland Courbis' side in France. The experience clearly left its mark on the 68-year-old manager, who said: "Marseille are a handful at their own ground, their fantastic atmosphere and incredible support guarantees that. They've had a good change in fortunes in the last two or three years after a dry spell, and I think it'll be a difficult tie. Didier Deschamps is the coach there and they've got one of our old players in Gabriel Heinze, so it'll be nice to see him."
FC Internazionale Milano and AC Milan were being mooted as likely opponents for the Premier League leaders in the new year, but Sir Alex was quietly pleased to see Marseille come out of the hat – not once, but twice. "Everyone thought we might get one of the Milan sides because we've faced them quite a few times in the last few years, but we got Marseille in the draw rehearsal and it proved right," he explained.
William Gallas – now a Tottenham Hotspur FC player – scored the winner the last time the clubs met on 19 October 1999 (a game in which Sir Alex fielded both Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs from his current squad), yet United's record against Ligue 1 teams has been fearsome since, with nine wins and five draws from 14 encounters since the turn of the millennium.
Deschamps knows how hard it will be, but found consolation in the language of the Tour de France. "It's a nice tie," he said. "It would be an achievement to go through but let's see in February. The main thing will be to make the most of our chances even if they are small. It's a level-one mountain pass. We'll have to use the right gear ratio and count on a puncture or an off-day for them."
Deschamps took on Sir Alex's United five times as a player in the UEFA Champions League, all with with Juventus. He was on the winning side in the first two matches in 1996/97, but was sent off in a 3-2 loss at Old Trafford the next season, and in 1998/99 suffered a semi-final defeat by Sir Alex's men. He later enjoyed a 5-0 win over United during his solitary season with Chelsea FC in 1999/2000. His overall record against United reads W3 D1 L3.
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