For the first time in six years, Manchester United face the prospect of not winning their Champions League group but Darren Fletcher has warned that they cannot afford to be complacent about second place with a difficult final game against Basle in Switzerland next month.
United will need a draw at least at St Jakob-Park on 7 December to be sure of the second qualifying place in Group C, which is by no means guaranteed against a side who have scored three goals at Old Trafford already this season. United required a last-minute equaliser from Ashley Young on that occasion and Fletcher said that his team could take nothing for granted.
The Scotland international, who scored United's second in the 2-2 draw with Benfica on Tuesday, admitted that they had set themselves a difficult task by failing to beat the Portuguese team. "The game [against Benfica] was a chance to win the group, it's going to be an uphill battle to do that now. We'll need a favour," he said. "We'll go to Basle needing a positive result, which we probably would have needed to do anyway if we had won tonight, so it's no different in that respect.
"Going away from home in the Champions League is a big challenge. They [Basle] play good, open, attacking, expansive football and they create chances, so we know it's going to be a difficult match, but we're confident of going there and getting a result, like in every match."
Not since December 2005, when United finished bottom of their Champions League group, have the club failed to make it beyond the first round of the competition proper. Then they were in the throes of Roy Keane's departure, struggling to keep pace with Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, and with a squad in transition.
Since then, Sir Alex Ferguson's teams have won their Champions League group for five consecutive seasons. In the 2007-08 season, in which they went on to beat Chelsea in the final in May, they amassed 16 of a possible 18 points in their group. Next month they must beat Basle and rely on Benfica dropping points at home to the hapless Romanian champions Otelul Galati to have any hope of keeping their group-winning run intact.
But the great fear is what finishing second might hold in store. Last season, a similar failure by Arsenal to close out their group meant that Arsène Wenger's team were paired with Barcelona in the first knockout round and went out the competition.
Fletcher said: "No, it's not [ideal], you want to have won the group and you want to have qualified in advance of your last game. But we're in the situation we are and we've got to deal with that. There's no point us moaning or saying what could have been.
"Of course, it's not ideal that we might have to face those sides [Real Madrid, Barcelona, Internazionale] earlier than we would anticipate. But I can't imagine any of those sides being too pleased to draw Manchester United. We're confident no matter who we play against and no matter what lies ahead of us in the future in this competition. If we get to the next round, we'll rise to that challenge."
In his first season in the Champions League Phil Jones, whose own goal in the first four minutes on Tuesday put United on the back foot, said he was not intimidated by the reputations of some of the teams that United could potentially face in the next round. He took a similar attitude towards the Spain team before England's victory over the world champions this month.
Jones said: "If we play Barcelona or Real Madrid it is just another game. They are two fantastic teams in the Champions League with world class players, but they are only human and I'm sure we can turn up and give them a good game.
"The competition has got a lot better – from what I have experienced you can't switch off for one second in the Champions League or you get punished like we have seen against Benfica. We have conceded two sloppy goals but we probably could have scored five."
Ferguson has given permission for Wayne Rooney to stay in Basle the day after the game and attend his Uefa appeal hearing in Nyon against the three-match ban in international football that will rule him out of the Euro 2012 group stages. Ferguson said on Tuesday night that there were no guarantees the striker would be fit for Saturday's home game against Newcastle United.
"There's always high standards at Manchester United," Fletcher said. "After every result we look back on it at what we could have done better and how we can improve as a team. We're always striving to improve and the longer the season goes on, we'll get in our form? I don't think the season has been a disaster so far. We're still in a relatively good position."
Group exits: Early KO
There has been only one occasion when more than one English team has failed to progress from the group stage since it was introduced as the first round proper of the competition in 1994. The teams eliminated early were:
2005-06 Manchester United and Everton
2003-04 Newcastle United
1997-98 Newcastle United
1995-96 Blackburn Rovers