On a cold, rainy evening in Basel, Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League at the group stage for the third time since the competition was revamped in 1992. Not many people would have predicted the outcome of the group quite like this.
When the draw was made in August, Manchester United drew Basel, Benfica and European first-timers Otelul Galati. On paper, this was one of the easiest groups for United in recent times. But the Red Devils paid a very heavy price for some poor home displays along with shambolic defending.
Despite their poor form in the Champions League, United travelled to Basel knowing that all they needed to qualify was to avoid defeat. They had kept clean sheets in 7 of their last 8 away games in Europe before last evening. Surely they could see out Basel and seal qualification to the lucrative knockout stages?
The visitors started with Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-Sung and Phil Jones in the middle of the park and United certainly had the better of the opening exchanges as they made the extra man in midfield count. But Basel got up the other end and scored just as United were starting to threaten. The shaky De Gea misjudged Shaqiri’s cross and managed to divert it into the path of Streller who gleefully obliged and found the back of the net. It was a kick in the teeth of the English champions who now knew they needed to score.
But where would the goals come from? Wayne Rooney is in the middle of another one of his now infamous goal droughts, and his lack of confidence showed when he failed to connect with a Nani cross when the goal was gaping. Unfortunately for United, that was about as close to a goal as they would come in the first half. Nani tormented the Basel left back, Park, but failed to deliver a telling ball. To be fair to the Portuguese winger, United weren’t exactly lining up in the box to score. Whenever they managed to work the ball out to Nani or Young on the wings, only Rooney would be available in the box to aim at and he was superbly marshaled and outmuscled by Abraham throughout the game.
In the middle of all this, United suffered a potentially fatal blow as their skipper Vidic had to be stretchered off with what looked like a serious knee ligament injury. His replacement, Jonny Evans, hardly fills one with confidence though he did put in a decent shift on the evening. But the severity of the injury Vidic suffered might well determine United’s campaign this season as without him, the defense looks all at sea. Patrice Evra was taken to the cleaners by the outstanding Shaqiri as the Swiss star beat him time and again. It has been a while since Patrice Evra turned in a solid shift defensively and one wonders if his time with the English champions is nearing an end. Chris Smalling, barring the second goal when he was found wanting the far post, had a far better evening at right-back as he kept Xhaka at bay. Going forward, he supported Nani well though the latter chose not to use him at times.
It said a lot about United’s precarious position when they missed Michael Carrick (through suspension). A midfield trio of Jones, Giggs and Park left a lot to be desired. Park will always give you a whole hearted and committed performance but he lacks the spark of creativity United so desperately crave. Giggs, except one stunning through ball for Rooney, struggled to pull the strings in midfield as the options in front of him were limited. With Anderson out till February and Cleverley not being available till Christmas, it will fall to Michael Carrick to be United’s playmaker in chief. It is a task he has taken to heart this season but can Alex Ferguson rely on the now aging Englishman? Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison are two of the brightest prospects Manchester United have at their disposal but Ferguson has rightly kept them wrapped in cotton wool till now. But his refusal (or inability) to sign a playmaker has now put the heat on him but how many times have we seen the wily old Scot pull a rabbit out of the hat just when all looked lost?
This is a team in transition and while that’s not a good enough excuse for last night’s result, Manchester United will be looking to bounce back starting this weekend when Wolves come visiting. The wounded animal will be more hungry than ever to get their season back on track and if ever there was a man to trust in such a situation, it’s Sir Alex Ferguson. Believe.