Basel blast sorry United into oblivion
Basel 2 Manchester Utd 1
Alex Ferguson will enter his 70th year aiming to win the only trophy yet to grace Old Trafford's trophy cabinet during his 25-year reign after FC Basel sent Manchester United crashing into the Europa League.
'Thursday night, Channel Five,' the chant used to goad Liverpool supporters following their European fall from grace will now be rammed down United's throats after goals by Marco Streller and Alex Frei sent the Swiss champions into the Champions League knockout stages.
Although Phil Jones' injury-time header gave United a flicker of hope, they failed to pull off another European miracle and, seven months after contesting the Champions League final against Barcelona, they can now look forward to trips to Kharkiv and Kazan, Europe's twilight zone.
Ferguson demanded a response, urging his players to use the pain of elimination as a spur. "You have to deal with the disappointment, and this club has used it as motivation many times," he said.
In truth, their elimination was no less than United deserved for their abject performance in Switzerland. They were simply not good enough.
Although United's task appeared straightforward -- avoid defeat and progression would be secured -- the unhappy coincidence of their Champions League fate being decided on the sixth anniversary of their group stage exit against Benfica in Lisbon in 2005 was not one for those of a superstitious nature.
To add to the ominous sense of all not being quite right for United, their white-and-black strip against Basel's blue and maroon stripes was almost a mirror image of the scene at Wembley in May, prior to Barcelona's dismantling of United in the Champions League final.
Basel are no Barcelona, however, and Streller and Frei hardly in the same league as David Villa and Lionel Messi, but the Swiss champions proved they could get under United's skin during their 3-3 draw at Old Trafford in September and they clearly remembered how to expose their visitors' pressure points as they took the game to Ferguson's team in St Jakob-Park.
United, without the suspended Michael Carrick and injured Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov, as well as long-term absentees Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Michael Owen, appeared uncertain in the early stages.
That sense of unease was amplified by goalkeeper David de Gea's weak punch from an early Xherdan Shaqiri cross and the Spaniard was at fault for Streller's goal in the ninth minute.
Although he has produced some stunning saves since his £18.3m summer transfer from Atletico Madrid, De Gea has also had numerous moments to forget and this was another.
With Chris Smalling floored inside the penalty area following a clash of heads with Nemanja Vidic, Shaqiri was left free to cross from the left flank. His ball was too close to De Gea, but the goalkeeper attempted to clear the cross with his leg, but he instead sliced the ball into Streller's path and the Basel captain took the chance to score from close range.
United were now staring at elimination and that stark reality lifted their game and saw Nani and Ashley Young, fuelled by Ryan Giggs in midfield, pushing Basel back with repeated raids down the flanks.
But the Basel goal was leading a charmed life and once United entered the penalty area, their good work turned to dust. Nani looked to have teed Rooney up for an equaliser on 30 minutes, but the England forward missed the ball completely inside the six-yard box.
As the ball dropped loose to Ji-Sung Park, the startled midfielder saw his shot saved.
Five minutes later, Rooney was released in the 18-yard box by Giggs, but his first-time shot was well saved by Yann Sommer in the Basel goal.
While United pushed forward, the mercurial Shaqiri gave Basel an attacking outlet by repeatedly tormenting Patrice Evra, but the winger's taste for the spectacular often saw him choose the wrong option.
United suffered a serious blow to their hopes on 42 minutes, however, when Vidic went down in agony inside the Basel half, clutching his right knee before being taken off on a stretcher. He later left the stadium on crutches; the best case scenario is that he has torn medial ligaments.
With United starting the second half knowing they needed to score, the stakes were raised with every passing minute.
The tension could have been eased by Rooney on 49 minutes had he converted United's best chance. After springing the offside trap to latch onto Giggs' pass, Rooney bore down on goal with defenders trailing in his wake, but with a shot into the far corner opening up, hit his effort wide.
It was a bad miss and one which almost ended United's hopes with Frei forcing a stunning save from De Gea with a 20-yard free kick four minutes later.
Trailing by just one goal, United remained in the game and they nearly equalised in bizarre circumstances on the hour when Markus Steinhofer's mis-clearance rattled the Basel crossbar.
Once again, luck was against United and the home side survived.
The game was up for United when Frei crept in at the far post to score from close range after Shaqiri had crossed following Rooney's stray pass.
Jones claimed a late consolation, but it was too little.
So while Europe's elite make plans for the Champions League final in Munich, United must now plot a route to Bucharest for the Europa League. How humiliating. (© Daily Telegraph, London)