Football is full of those moments where you just know something bad is going to happen. You can feel it in your gut and as a spectator there is nothing you can do about it. I had one such experience tonight, after watching Manchester United spend 70-odd minutes fruitlessly thwacking the ball towards Basle’s goal. Xherdin Shiqiri, the barrel-chested trickster for Basle, skipped down the right and looped in a cross. Goal, I thought. Evans leapt and missed it. I knew Smalling wasn’t going to deal with it. Flat footed, he was leaving it for de Gea. The Spaniard hadn’t called, leaving it for Smalling. Alex Frei, with the instinct of a born goalscorer, didn’t wait for them to decide and nipped in to score Basle’s second. 2-0. And Manchester United were out of the Champions League.
Now is not the time to write United off as a European force, of course. That happened last time they crashed out at this stage, back in 2005, and they have reached three finals since then, winning one. Obituaries, then, can wait, but still it’s worth pointing out that this defeat rams home the point that this squad are just not good enough to make a dent in this competition. I argued just yesterday that even should United progress it should not paper over the cracks that have appeared – and that have become especially obvious – since the 6-1 thrashing at the hands of their neighbours.
As it turned out the cracks were not even papered over as Basle defended resolutely – if sometimes desperately – and came out with a 2-1 win. United dominated possession but often struggled to pass the massed ranks of the Swiss side. The creative spark was missing; Nani threatened and Rooney had one of those frustrating games where he appears to shoot whenever he touches the ball, but aside from those two goal threats were few and far between. Young – who started so well in his Old Trafford career – was quiet and the central midfield three of Jones, Park and Giggs never seemed to have the dynamism to pose a real threat to Basle (notwithstanding Jones’ consolation goal, scored after a goalmouth scramble).
I feel that after tonight’s game the points I made yesterday stand. United have a core of good players but the deadwood needs to be shifted and more quality needs to be brought in – especially in central midfield – if Manchester United are truly to prosper in the coming seasons. The livewire Shaqiri showed the value of creativity. In a team set up to defend he provided the spark that brought two goals their overall play had barely deserved. Did United have anyone who could provide chances from next-to-nothing? I think the scoreline provides the answer to that.
For now United join their neighbours in the Europa League, and somewhere Channel 5 and ITV(3) executives will feel like they have just won the lottery. United and their fans have lost the Champions League for the rest of this season, a competition their club has become intrinsically associated with. However, the short term pain may lead to long term gain. Ferguson will not be fooled by the evidence of his own eyes – it may take a disaster like this for the changes that are needed to take place. But rest assured, United fans, changes will take place, and rest assured, this is not the end of the world. To use one of my favourite quotes from the poet Robert Frost: “in three words I can sum everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on”.
Life goes on, and football goes on, too. It may seem like an utter disaster to United fans now but there may even be a silver lining, as Ferguson can no longer ignore those cracks. In the long run, United may just benefit from being rolled over by the Swiss.