When Christian Gross was in charge at Grasshopper Zurich he took his team to the Matterhorn "because they had a mountain to climb". At Spurs the incline was more like an Everest and, with David Ginola in tow and Alan Sugar in the boardroom, he never made it past base camp. With Basle in the Champions' League last season, Gross regained a head for heights, knocking out Celtic (in the qualifying round) and Liverpool and drawing at Old Trafford. On Tyneside last night, though, he was eliminated from the Uefa Cup by Newcastle United and by one of his own players.
A 14th-minute own goal by Boris Smiljanic left Gross's side needing to score three times to reach the third round in February. They had the chances to do it, but a combination of Shay Given's goalkeeping and a couple of borderline refereeing decisions conspired against them. The Swiss league leaders drew a blank, despite enjoying the better of this second round, second leg game.
Not that Gross was in the mood for consolation. "You can't be the better side when you lose," the Basle coach said, stern-faced. "We made mistakes."
Some said it was a mistake six years ago when Gross turned up in the Bill Nicholson Suite at White Hart Lane brandishing a London Underground ticket "I hope this is the ticket to my dream," he said. He arrived on Tyneside clutching the hope of emulating Lothar Matthäus, whose Partizan Belgrade side trailed 1-0 from the home leg of their Champions' League qualifier in August but won 1-0 at St James' Park and then triumphed 4-3 on penalties.
Having conceded three goals at home to Newcastle, though, Basle's task was always going to hinge on the sturdiness of their defensive barricades at the Toon Army fortress. Already without their injured captain, Murat Yakin, they lost their other regular central defender, Marco Zwyssig, after a challenge which earned Alan Shearer a yellow card after 18 seconds.
It might have been different had Basle made the most of the chances which came their way in the opening 10 minutes, but Mario Cantaluppi flashed a right-foot drive across the home goal and Hakin Yakin, the injured captain's brother, directed a header inches over Shay Given's bar. It left Gross' men in need of crampons when Smiljanic, a replacement for Zwyssig, diverted Laurent Robert's right-wing corner over his own goal-line despite a belated attempt to clear by the aptly named Scott Chipperfield.
They might even have put themselves into a 5-4 aggregate lead by half-time but Cantaluppi was denied a penalty when crashing to the ground under challenge from Given and Newcastle's Irish keeper produced fine reflex saves to thwart Julio Rossi and Marco Streller when Hakin twice prised open the home defence.
It was a similar tale of woe for Basle after the break. In the 52nd minute the influential Hakin clipped a left-footed free-kick off the right post from 25 yards. Then, six minutes later, Rossi planted a close-range header past Given only for the referee's assistant to flag for offside.
Basle dominated throughout the second half. It would have been an injustice a Gross injustice had Zuberbuhler not turned wide a Shearer drive with nine minutes of frustration for their coach still to endure.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Hughes, O'Brien, Bramble, Bernard; Dyer (Solano, 79), Jenas, Speed, Robert (Ambrose, 79); Ameobi, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), LuaLua, Woodgate, Caldwell, Viana.
FC Basle (4-4-2): Zuberbuhler; Degen, Quennoz, Zwyssig (Smiljanic, 5), Atouba; Barberis (Degen, 53), Cantaluppi, Chipperfield, H Yakin; Rossi (Tum, 62), Streller. Substitutes not used: Rapo (gk), Ze Maria, Duruz.
Referee: K Fisker (Denmark).
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