United get what they deserve – the Europa League
Basle 2 Manchester United 1
Thursday 08 December 2011
When Christmas comes to the snow-flecked banks of the Rhine, a DVD of this match will be filling rather more Swiss stockings than It's a Wonderful Life. This was Basle's game of their lives and it consigned Manchester United to the kind of footballing Alaska that is the Europa League.
It is admittedly the one competition, in its former guise of the Uefa Cup, that Sir Alex Ferguson has never won and, frankly, in the words of Roy Keane, his one-time captain and enforcer who watched from the stands, they deserve to be nowhere else.
Even had they left Switzerland with the point that would have carried them through to the knockout stages, there was nothing in their arthritic, error-strewn campaign to suggest they would not have been eliminated by the first decent side they met. Ferguson admitted that it was at Old Trafford rather than Basle that the fatal damage to their campaign had been done.
United were playing in white shirts and facing a side in claret and blue stripes, just as they had done in the European Cup final at Wembley. They were outplayed and hurt by Barcelona but it is one thing to lose a final, it is quite another to fall at the first hurdle, as United did for the first time in the Champions League since they left Lisbon bottom of their group exactly six years before.
By finishing last in 2005, Manchester United were spared the Uefa Cup, which Ferguson would have been grateful for. Channel Five, who hold the British rights to the Europa League were, along with Basle and Napoli, the night's big winners. At one swoop they have secured two of the biggest clubs in English football.
Defeat would have been hard to swallow and the loss of his captain, Nemanja Vidic, would have stuck even harder in Ferguson's throat. Just before the interval he tangled with Basle striker Mario Streller and went down in obvious agony; a blow upon a bruise.
That may have explained why Ferguson was unusually graceless in defeat. Most of the time, he knows how to lose but his remarks that he could not judge Basle as an attacking force because they had gone forward so little were raw. They did score twice.
Both were created by Xherdan Shaqiri, the young, stocky, highly-talented midfielder who may not remain at St Jakob-Park for very long and the first arrived before 10 minutes were up.
When goalkeeper David de Gea was signed, there was an acceptance that his youth would mean that a few mistakes would be the price of a considerable talent, which was on display just after the interval when he tipped away a fierce free-kick from Alexander Frei.
St Jakob-Park in early December was, however, no place for a goalkeeper with nerves. Several days of rain had slicked and soaked the pitch, which was rutted and uneven. There was the wind which had been strong enough to threaten the roofs of the stalls at Basle's Christmas market. It was a night to shoot on sight.
De Gea was undone not by a shot but a cross from the 20-year-old Shaqiri, whose family had sought refuge in Switzerland from Kosovo. For reasons only he can know, De Gea tried to kick the ball. Like so many did here, he miscued and the ball bounced out to Streller, who before the game had tried to articulate the sense of wonder that would accompany a Swiss victory. He met it perfectly, his foot right over the ball as it bounced in front of him and suddenly the talk of miracles became flesh. United's backs were already turned towards the wall and now they could feel the bricks.
Six minutes from the end came what everybody in the stadium knew was the killer goal. Again it came from Shaqiri; the ball eluded Chris Smalling and Alexander Frei stooped low to head the ball home. The flares burned in the stands and Heiko Vogel, the Basle coach, who was not born when Ferguson entered management, danced on the pitch, saying he wanted to "kiss every corner flag".
With his red hair and caustic wit, Vogel is something of a Swiss Gordon Strachan. He had taken over in the wake of the chaotic 3-3 draw at Old Trafford that, in Ferguson's opinion, wrecked Manchester United's chances far more than this defeat. Vogel had remarked that since Basle had to beat United to qualify, they would need a "perfect game and that someone upstairs had to shine his light on us."
Momentarily, it flickered. Facing his own net, Markus Steinhofer, Vogel's full-back, drove a cross against his own bar, which his manager said on any other night would have gone in. Luis Nani performed manfully and twice Ryan Giggs, playing better as the edgy, rain-swept night dragged on, set up Wayne Rooney, who was not the pivotal figure the situation demanded.
Then with a minute left, Federico Macheda struck the bar and although Yann Sommer scrambled Phil Jones' header back, it had obviously crossed the line. Manchester United had three minutes of stoppage time, the time it had taken them to win the European Cup against Bayern Munich 12 years ago. Now, there was no grand finale and although Ferguson kept frantically pointing to his watch, time had long since run out for his team and for this campaign.
Man of the match Shaqiri.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee B Kuipers (Netherlands).
Plain sailing as Benfica stay top
An early tap-in from Paraguay striker Oscar Cardozo earned Benfica a 1-0 home win over Otelul Galati and clinched top spot in Group C. They had secured qualification with their 2-2 draw at United in the previous round and were able to relax and control the tempo of the match after taking the lead. Argentinian winger Nicolas Gaitan ran to the byline and his clever pass found Cardozo, who coolly tapped in the winner in the seventh minute.
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