Man United march on despite shaky displays
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson avoided superlatives to describe Tuesday's performance in a 2-1 aggregate win over Olympique Marseille that put them in the quarter-finals as his side once again did just enough to keep their noses in front.
"Fine", "OK" and "we hung on" were his assessment after United's defensive vulnerability and lack of adequate cover for key injuries showed in a tie won thanks to two goals from livewire Javier Hernandez after a 0-0 draw in the first leg.
Contrast that with competition favourites Barcelona's brilliance in last week's mauling of Arsenal where coach Pep Guardiola enthused about a "fantastic" showing and you have a measure of where the Premier League leaders stand.
The ability to avoid punishment for mediocrity has characterised much of United's season.
They are top of the league despite dropping points by conceding late goals because their rivals have suffered worse wobbles, and they are in the FA Cup semi-finals despite being given a scare by non-league side Crawley Town in the fifth round.
The odd bright spark, like the emergence of Hernandez and more goals from Dimitar Berbatov, not to mention Wayne Rooney's wonder strike in the Manchester derby, have often masked what Marseille manager Didier Deschamps summed up on Tuesday.
"We didn't play against a fantastic Manchester United side," he said.
The three-times European champions may have reached a fifth successive quarter-final but Ferguson did not talk about flair or passing skills when he pondered what could take them further.
"I think this present team's best chances are because our away form is very good. It will always give us a chance in the next stage," he told a news conference.
Injuries had decimated the back four, with top choice centre-backs Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic out before the game with calf troubles while full-back John O'Shea and his replacement Rafael were forced off with what looked like hamstring problems.
That left the inexperienced Chris Smalling partnering Wes Brown, with neither offering the authority, cool heads or sheer physical presence of the players they were understudies to.
Brown headed into his own net and Smalling struggled to keep possession and was out-manoeuvred by the Marseille forwards.
The fact that this pair also had a lot to answer for in United's 3-1 league defeat by Liverpool 10 days ago suggests the club's success in the rest of the season is going to depend on having at least one of Vidic or Ferdinand back in the team.
With Arsenal breathing down their necks in the league, three points behind with a game in hand, United will be glad of the international break after Saturday's game at home to Bolton Wanderers which will give their players time to get fit.
Such is the serious shortage of fit experienced defenders, Ferguson was asked if he had considered persuading recently retired Gary Neville to put his boots back on.
"He's retired," he exclaimed with a laugh. "He hasn't trained for about two months."