Manchester United could be handed a shock return to the Champions' League in place of Basle after Fifa yesterday threatened to suspend Switzerland from world football.
Football's governing body have given the Swiss national association one month to discipline rebel club Sion, who have mounted a series of legal challenges after being thrown out of the Europa League for fielding ineligible players.
Swiss officials will now seek clarification from Fifa next week. In theory Basle could be prevented from playing Bayern Munich in the last 16. That would let in United, who lost out to Basle in the group stages.
United, who yesterday reached an informal €35m (£29.3m) deal with Benfica for the Argentinian midfielderNicolas Gaitan, refused to comment last night but privately believe their chances of a return are slim.
Swiss football leaders, including the Basle vice-president, Bernhard Heusler, met yesterday to consider the dispute. "I am confident that we will play Bayern Munich but I take [the threat] very seriously," Heusler was reportedto have said in an interview.
Fifa's clash with Sion began in 2009 when the Swiss side received a one-year transfer ban for breaking transfer regulations in the signing of the goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary.
The club launched a series of civil court actions after being thrown out of the Europa League. Yesterday Fifa complained about "the attitude of the club repeatedly trying to circumvent this decision in a legally abusive manner", in a statement issued in Tokyo.
Fifa and Uefa's hardline stance was last week backed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Fifa have now given the Swiss FA until 13 January to nullify all results involving Sion where they have fielded ineli-gible players. Under the terms of a Fifa suspension, a country's nationaland club teams, referees and officialsare prohibited from taking part in international matches and meetings, or receiving Fifa funding.
Meanwhile, United's deal for Gaitan will see the Argentinian midfielder move to Old Trafford next summer. The Independent on Sunday understands that while no firm contractual agreement has been reached between the two clubs, an arrangement is in place to bring Gaitan to Old Trafford in June.
United have categorically refused to meet the €45m (£37.7m) release clause figure written into the 23-year-old's new Benfica contract in October, but the sum the Premier League champions pay could rise to €40m (£33.5m) if the 23-year-old has a particularly prolific second half to the season. The final transfer fee will be contingent on the player's appearances and performances, with Benfica's requirement to pay Boca Juniors 20 per cent of the final fee – probably £7m – under the terms of the deal by which they signed him in May 2010 contributing to their high demands.
Sources in Portugal suggested last night that United's own performances in domestic and European competition may also affect the final price they pay for a player who has netted only once this season and scored seven times in the last campaign.
Sir Alex Ferguson said on Friday that United, now deprived of both Darren Fletcher and Anderson in midfield and with Tom Cleverley unlikely to return until well into January, would only buy in the winter window if "a player we have always been interested in suddenly appears", and Benfica are extremely reluctant to sell next month.
As well as progressing to the Champions' League knockout stage, the club face an intense battle for Portugal's Liga with Porto. Having wrested the title away from that club in 2010, they sold players and relinquished it back to them last season. Their 5-1 win over Rio Ave on Friday night put them three points clear at the top, ahead of second-placed Porto's clash with Maritimo last night. The Benfica board are likelyto deny any suggestion of a deal with United for Gaitan, because intense pressure from fans not to sell players makes any public acknowledgement impossible, and Portuguese stock market rules dictate that the club must first formally disclose any sales or purchases.
A deal for Gaitan would equip United with a combative and dynamic two-footed 5ft 8in player, whose most natural operating position is that of the playmaker between midfield and attack, where United have been sorely lacking since the retirement of Paul Scholes.