As much as I hate the result, and the prospect of United labouring through the Europa League, Basel’s victory is good for football.
About a month back I wrote an article about how the Champions League had become stale and the big clubs cruise too easily through the early rounds. I would like you all to know that today I am eating a big, steaming bowl of my own words, with humble pie for dessert. Now I’m not retreating completely, because I still think the Champions League system is flawed, and I still think a Cup would be better. But I’m happy to admit that, with APOEL and FC Basel going through, and the two Manchester clubs going out, the Champions League is not quite the dreary procession I made it out to be.
Playing against Manchester United for a place in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, needing to win where the opponent needed only to draw, FC Basel showed everything that makes football a wonderful game. While I, a United fan, was far too busy hurling obscenities and projectiles at the television to appreciate it at the time, on reflection the game reminded all of us why football enthrals us so.
Early in the game, it looked as though United had settled in to the sort of groove from which they are generally difficult to dislodge. They were comfortably knocking the ball around, keeping possession, and strolling into the final third with the languid swagger of inevitable success. Typical United, playing away from home in the Champions League group stage.
That was the first eight minutes. In the ninth, Nemanja Vidic collided with Chris Smalling, David de Gea had one of those moments that David de Gea occasionally has, and as a result Marco Streller belted home the opening goal. Streller, along with Xherdan Shaqiri were the most impressive players on the field, and both will be looked at by some heavy hitters in coming transfer windows.
Yet even after the goal, United still sauntered around, lacking the urgency of a team who thought they were participating in something more than a formality. By contrast, Basel’s players were everywhere. Working hard, tracking back, surging forward, regrouping quickly when the ball was turned over, and continuing to make chances of their own. They looked like a team who desperately wanted to be in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. United looked like a team who thought they were already there.
As the minutes ticked by, United’s players continued to wander, while Basel’s continued to harry and press. Basel’s banks of three and four maintained their shape, and United failed to pick the lock. Rather than being a surprise, the second goal was an always likely and utterly deserved clincher. The slack defending which allowed Shaqiri to cross the ball in the first place, and then allowed the ball to get through to Alexander Frei was typical of United’s showing. The jubilant celebration of the Basel players was in keeping with the gusto they had shown throughout. They had seized the game from the English champions, and seized a spot in the next round to which many United players likely felt a divine right.
United woke up slightly after that, and pinched a goal back through Phil Jones with a couple of minutes to go. Even there they had three attempts before the ball finally rolled over the line. Claiming the goal to the officials was the first urgency seen from the Reds all night. For a few moments, they chased a miracle, but it was hard not to think that it would be unjust. Actually I wasn’t thinking about that, I was just yelling ‘Come on!’ every time United moved towards goal. Only in the last five minutes did I feel I was watching Manchester United.
As much as I hate the result, and the prospect of United labouring through the Europa League, Basel’s victory is good for football. It shows why football is different, because a team who is enthusiastic enough and who is willing to play without fear of their opposition can chop down even the loftiest of totems. It was magic, not only because it was an upset but because both sides got exactly what they deserved from the game.
Sir Alex Ferguson would have been incandescent at his side’s languor and complacency. Yet it is his summary of another famous European night which applies again today: ‘Football, bloody hell.’