Get set for trench warfare tonight

GREETINGS from the Old Port of Marseille. I’ve always considered tonight’s venue to be one of the most under-rated in Europe and make no mistake — when the conjunction of occasion and opposition is right, it can equal anything Madrid or Milan has to offer in terms of bloodcurdling atmosphere.

To be frank, the entire city can be a bit of a bloodcurdler when it comes to ‘welcoming’ away fans, and I think I have detected more quietly anxious queries than usual from first-timers about which streets to avoid.

Certainly, Paddy Evra will be watching his step if he decides to venture out for a drink at any point: the locals are making a big deal of the fact that this will be his first match in the country since he led the disgrace of the South Africa rebellion that got him a five-match international ban and national popular opprobrium.

He’s also a Parisian, a status guaranteed to make you a target down here even at the best of times.

Club legend Jean Fernandez then stoked up the fires by announcing over the weekend that he expected Paddy to be “targeted” with a view to seeing him carded — although in our experience, Potty doesn’t need much encouragement to proceed straight to Defcon One no matter what the opposition.

Meanwhile, some English journalists launched a story that United are going to try and bid for Marseille’s most-loved current star, Valbuena, which no-one believes deep-down but which makes for good inflammatory pre-match copy in ‘Le Provencal’ et al.

So, in short, all the usual ingredients are in place for a European knockout tie: hints of violence, predictions of bad conduct and threats of ultimate revenge. Ah, we’ve missed this, haven’t we?

At the time of writing, a United injury crisis is being hyped up in the English papers, but of the “five stars out” only Giggs and Anderson are what could be described as true, unexpected blows.

Ferdinand, for example, has long since ceased to be seen as any kind of reliable factor, whereas Evans and Owen being injured arguably constitutes a boon.

I suspect that many, like me, are keen to see if Smalling will get the nod, and the chance to prove he can cut it as impressively at this level as he apparently can in the Premiership.

Meanwhile, we’ll all be on Cantona-watch tonight. Surely the great man can’t fail to turn up to this one – the club where he discovered his passion for football against the one that best allowed him to express it to the world?

I remember seeing him pop up on French TV last summer during the week OM finally lifted the title after two decades’ absence from the summit, amidst scenes that reminded me of 1993 Manchester.

He beamed beatifically, as if a deep void in him had finally been filled.

When he was a Caillols kid in the 70s and 80s, Eric would race down to the Velodrome to be inspired by the mercurial talents the club had a habit of employing.

It reminds me that it is this kind of transmittable magic that should be the aim of football, not the mere baubles of silverware, and I can only hope that we show the appreciative Marseillais what United football can be about tonight.

Away-leg European Cup matches have become so synonymous with one-up wing-free caution that you wonder what impression we have left across too much of Europe these past two decades.

If we’re not Liverpool circa 1981, then let’s prove it occasionally, hey?

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