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With Marseille fearful of conceding an away goal and United rusty in attack the game was reduced to a war of attrition in which ponderous passing and stout defending were the order of the day.
The game's best chance saw Darren Fletcher draw a smart save from Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda with a low drive and it was one of few highlights on a night when the teams succeeded only in cancelling each other out.
In the absence of a knockout blow in the first leg, a goal for Marseille in the return match on March 15 will put them in a commanding position to reach the last eight for the first time since they won the tournament in 1993.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson conceded that the result left the outcome delicately balanced, but he took solace from the fact his side still have their fate in their own hands.
"This sort of result can be dangerous if you concede a goal at home," said the 69-year-old Scot. "But it's simple because if we win, we go through.
"It was a disappointing game but they (Marseille) were desperate not to concede a goal.
"But I also expected more of us offensively, as we didn't make the most of our chances when we got into good positions."
Marseille coach Didier Deschamps was delighted that his team had delivered on his wish not to concede an away goal.
"I am very happy with my players because they have done their best tonight as Manchester United showed what a good team they are," said Deschamps, who captained Marseille to the 1993 trophy.
"Maybe we will have an opportunity to score in the second leg. It is not a bad result for us but it is a good one for United," he added.
Deschamps's side started the game in cautious fashion, allowing United to take the initiative.
The visitors appeared keen to test former United player Gabriel Heinze's ageing legs in the Marseille left-back position and Nani was regularly sought out with searching passes into the space behind the Argentine.
Fletcher's chance arrived in the eighth minute as he tested Mandanda with a skidding effort from the edge of the box, while Souleymane Diawara showed alertness to block from Wayne Rooney.
The good positions that Marseille did manage to adopt were squandered due to a reluctance to shoot at goal, testament perhaps to the absence through injury of in-form striker Andre-Pierre Gignac.
A miscued overhead kick by Brandao was all they could muster in the first 45 minutes, while United's own momentum faded after a bright start.
The hosts enjoyed a more promising spell early in the second period, with Edwin van der Sar called into action by a Brandao header before Andre Ayew thrashed a half-volley across goal and wide from the left-hand side.
The hosts' flurry of attacking endeavour roused the notoriously demanding Stade Velodrome crowd but United -- who conceded just one goal in the group phase -- defended calmly and were not unduly troubled.
A moment of inattention from Rod Fanni gave Dimitar Berbatov a sight of goal at the other end but Diawara intervened smartly to get in the way of the Bulgarian's shot.
Deschamps introduced Mathieu Valbuena, freshly recovered from a knee injury, with 11 minutes to play but the France winger's first touch spoke of weeks on the sidelines as he tamely let the ball roll out of play.
Mandanda saved at Nani's feet to keep the Premier League leaders at bay before the fans' patience was finally rewarded by the final whistle.