As Thorsten Fink, the manager of Basle, knows only too well from his playing days, when it comes to beating Manchester United, it is wise not to take any result for granted until the game is well and truly over.
The former Bayern Munich midfielder, who came on as a late substitute in the 1999 European Cup final just minutes before United's famous comeback, was back there on the brink of a monumental victory once again last night, but it turned out to be the same old story. United, a goal down with time running out, summoned the wherewithal from somewhere to save the day.
While Carlos Tevez was rebelling in Munich, so United's defence were malfunctioning in Manchester. Only a 90th-minute goal from Ashley Young saved Sir Alex Ferguson's team from the most extraordinary of defeats in a game which they led 2-0 at half-time and then conspired almost to lose 3-2. United have not lost at home since their defeat to Chelsea on 3 April last year but they came perilously close last night.
The ending was suitably exciting but Ferguson, who conceded this was a "wake-up call", knew that all was not well with his team. Even as United sauntered into a two-goal lead within 17 minutes, both of them from Danny Welbeck, there was a sense that their defence was not what it should be and so it proved in a second-half collapse of epic proportions.
Both Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones looked off the pace, and were offered little protection by Michael Carrick and Anderson, but usually even on their off-days there is enough quality in this United team to see them through. Not last night. They were picked off in the second half with goals from Alex Frei, the former Switzerland captain, who scored twice, the second a penalty, and the winger Fabian Frei.
Third in Group C and two points behind Basle and Benfica – both on four – United should still qualify but there is no room for error. Even Ferguson was moved to describe his team's defence as "careless". "They made two or three openings in the first half, but a lack of concentration killed us," he said. "We threw the game away. It was a really good performance in the first half but we were left grappling to get a result. Anyway, we rescued it.
"I think it's a wake-up call, losing three goals at home. The defenders and midfielders have to be better than that in terms of concentration. They have good ability but if you relax, the quality of the Champions League can make you suffer."
And suffer they did, although United did have one decent performance at the back from goalkeeper David de Gea who did extremely well to stop Marco Streller's shot six minutes into the second half that was hit from point-blank range with the score at 2-0. But even De Gea lost his bearings later when Aleksandar Dragovic tried to lob him with a shot from inside his own half that had the United goalkeeper scrambling back. It was that kind of night.
This was a game that United looked like they would stroll with 20 minutes gone and Welbeck taking his chances with confidence. "The attacking part was very good," Ferguson said, "but they [Basle] could have scored three goals in the first half. I suppose in many ways it was a 'Welcome to European football'. They [the United players] were very lax for most of the game."
Ferguson disputed the award of a penalty for Basle's third goal, a clumsy challenge by Antonio Valencia on the influential Streller. "You could see quite clearly Valencia won the ball," he claimed. "It was a poor decision as far as I'm concerned, disappointing." But he was not about to blame the Italian referee Paolo Tagliavento for his team throwing three points away.
The United manager said that he "hoped" Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez would be fit to play come Saturday's game against Norwich City. But his problems are not in attack, they are in defence. He has played six different central defensive combinations in nine games in all competitions this season and the Jones-Ferdinand axis that found Peter Crouch such a handful at Stoke on Saturday struggled again.
Jones had the better game of the two but he was badly at fault in the 25th minute when he allowed Alex Frei to lay the ball off to Streller and then failed to track the run of the striker who missed from six yards out when the ball was returned to him. That was the story of United's first half: they gifted Basle a disproportionately high number of chances and somehow the Swiss side conspired to miss them all.
In the meantime, Welbeck showed them how it was done. It is indicative of the esteem in which Ferguson now holds the 20 year old that he should come straight back into the United team ahead of both Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov.
Welbeck's first goal on 16 minutes started with Fabio Da Silva who played Valencia in down the right. His cross was set nicely by Ryan Giggs for Welbeck to sweep in. It was Giggs's ball from the left that Welbeck finished very neatly at the back post for the second.
The collapse in the second half came suddenly after Fabian Frei scored. De Gea saved Streller's header at the corner but the Basle striker was completely unmarked when the ball dropped for him to volley in off the post. On 60 minutes Alex Frei got away from Ferdinand again and had the space to plant his header past De Gea when Fabian Frei's cross came in.
The Swiss team could scarcely believe it and when Valencia crashed into Streller on 76 minutes, Alex Frei converted the penalty beautifully.
Ferguson sent on Nani and then Berbatov and it was the former who made the difference. Nani's excellent back-post cross from the right was headed in by Young. United had saved the day. How they had almost managed to throw it away before then is a worry for Ferguson.
Man of the match Streller.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee P Tagliavento (It).
Attendance 73,115.Reuse content