Jamie Jackson at St. Jakob-Park on 22 November 2017
Disaster struck for Manchester United with less than a minute of normal time remaining when Michael Lang prodded home to claim a win which means José Mourinho’s team will qualify unless they suffer a record home European defeat in their final Group A game against CSKA Moscow.
For that scenario to come into play Basel would also need to beat Benfica to then draw level with United and Moscow on 12 points. The remote chances of this left Mourinho calm about progression to the knockout stage.
“I don’t think we need a point, I think we can even lose the match, it depends on goals [allowed],” he said. “In relation to this match, at half-time it should be 5-0. They didn’t have a shot, we had a huge percentage of the ball, created numerous chances and the game was easy to win. But you don’t score, the opponent survives, and in the second half you feel they have a chance and in the last minute they score.”
This was a fair summation of what occurred, except Mourinho’s team sleep-walked through the second half so the defeat was deserved. The manager made seven changes from Saturday’s win over Newcastle United. Those retained were Chris Smalling, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku. Of the players drafted in the most notable were Sergio Romero, who replaced David de Gea, and Marcos Rojo, making a first appearance since the serious knee injury he suffered in April.
Mourinho’s side lined up as a 4-1-4-1 that had Ander Herrera in the holding role. As against Newcastle it was Pogba who sparked United into life. His clever ball put Lukaku in and Marouane Fellaini’s goal-bound header was eventually cleared by Manuel Akanji. Daley Blind delivered the corner on to Smalling’s head but the effort was weak and rolled to safety.
United took hold of the game for a period as Jesse Lingard, Matteo Darmian, Pogba and Fellaini began to swap quick, incisive passes to move their side down the field. One of these forays led to a free-kick; Blind swung the ball in from the right but Fellaini was as profligate with his header as Smalling.
Raphaël Wicky’s side again began to enjoy possession, though were unable to threaten their visitors. When they did advance close to Romero’s goal United closed the door. At the other end Blind took successive corners, from left and right, but nothing came of them.
After Geoffrey Serey Dié fouled Pogba United had a dead-ball position 20 yards out. But Pogba’s attempt missed disappointingly. Equally remiss was the way Darmian hoofed a cross high into the sky from Lingard’s neat reverse pass. The ball eventually fell onto Blind’s left boot and he proceeded to smack this out rather than find a team-mate.
United spent the closing moments of a soporific opening 45 minutes watching Dimitri Oberlin being equally wasteful from a 30-yard free-kick, Fellaini clip Tomas Vaclik’s left post with a close-range header and Martial sprint through from Herrera’s long-range pass. He could not finish, though, and after Rojo’s 25-yarder hit Marek Suchy’s head and rebounded off the crossbar, the teams wandered off with the game goalless.
There was a scare for United at the start of the second half when Renato Steffen was allowed time to pick a cross from the right but, again, it lacked quality. United roved upfield almost instantly and a quick Martial boot-shuffle and Pogba was in but he over-deliberated and the danger passed.
The contest had brightened, though. Darmian conceded a handball on the right and when Suchy’s ball in was headed out by Fellaini, Serey Dié flashed a shot just past Romero’s left post. Next up Mohamed Elyounoussi tried his luck from around 35 yards but it was a pea-roller that Romero collected easily. Steffen followed this by racing at a back-pedalling United rearguard, yet once more the shot went straight to the visiting goalkeeper.
Romero did have to make a sharp save from an Oberlin flick-on and moments later he was beaten but Steffen’s cross-shot went wide of the right post.
United had lost control and now came a series of Basel chances with Lang’s header off Romero’s bar and Elyounoussi’s spurning of the rebound the first of these. Mourinho swapped Marcus Rashford for Lingard and Nemanja Matic for Pogba but still Basel came at his team. After the manager brought on Ibrahimovic for Martial, Lang made his late intervention to leave Basel, along with CSKA, three points behind United. The home side worked it down the left to Raoul Petretta whose fizzing cross was met at the far post by Lang.
Mourinho refused to blame Blind for losing Lang. “Daley was blaming himself, it’s totally unfair,” he said. “I refuse that situation because we are a team in the first half, we should be winning five- or 6-0 and that was not Daley’s fault.”