Saturday 18 November 2017

Nowhere to hide for United

Wayne Rooney and Alex Ferguson share as United train ahead of their Champions League clash with Basel
Wayne Rooney and Alex Ferguson share as United train ahead of their Champions League clash with Basel

Tim Rich, in Basel

Traditionally, Switzerland is where you go when you seek refuge, whether from tax or war. However, from the moment Wayne Rooney arrived in the country to the moment he leaves, the spotlight will be fierce and unforgiving.

In a perfect world he will lead Manchester United into the knock-out phase of the Champions League here tonight and then travel to Nyon and persuade Uefa's disciplinary commission to reduce the ban that would see him miss England's first three matches in next year's European Championship -- a competition in which three games are often all that England get.

Most seasons, Rooney would not reckon to play in Manchester United's final group game, a match that is usually the chance for those confined to walk-on parts to take centre-stage.

Two years ago, Michael Owen scored three times in Wolfsburg, as a side that featured Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher in central defence humbled the German champions on their own pitch.

This time, injury has meant that Owen and Dimitar Berbatov are not options for Alex Ferguson and, even if they were, United's situation in the Champions League is sufficiently serious that they would not have been considered.

Unless Otelul Galati, who have been subject to the kind of treatment reserved for Walter the Softy by Dennis the Menace, can conjure something against Benfica in Lisbon, United will not be finishing in the first place that would see them avoid the competition's big beasts.

They need a point to go through and, if they are not down to the bare bones, there are enough injuries to leave plenty of exposed flesh.

In the wake of the three-match ban for his witless tackle on Montenegro's Miodrag Dzudovic, Rooney was spared the ordeal that comes with playing at Liverpool, Ferguson saying the punishment had "devastated" him.

Last night, his manager was far more sanguine. "It is a different day," he said. "This is a big game, an important game, I don't think this will come into it at all."

Under normal circumstances, United, who have lost one away game in the Champions League since being overwhelmed by Milan in the 2007 semi-final second leg in San Siro, would not concern themselves unduly about securing the draw that would see them through to the competition's business phase.

However, these are not normal times. Only twice have United failed to clear their group. In 1994, their sin was naivety, relentlessly exposed not just by Romario in the Nou Camp but by Gothenburg. They were desperately ordinary 11 years later, mired in the Glazer takeover, a succession of unimpressive signings and hamstrung by the loss of Rooney, who was sent off in the first game.

Here, Ferguson thought the crime had been complacency, especially against Basel at Old Trafford, that had brought his side if not to the brink, then to being very aware of the edge.

In September, a two-goal lead had somehow been squandered and, but for Ashley Young's desperately late equaliser, United would need a win tonight.

There was a little gasp in St Jakob-Park's crowded press room when Ferguson was asked if he had got his tactics wrong that night.

"There was nothing wrong with the tactics," he retorted. "It was the complacency that undermined us; we could have had four or five but we showed a lack of discipline that cost us two points. That equaliser from Young has rescued us."

Ferguson argued that it was wrong to suggest his team had not performed well in the Champions League. They had held Benfica at the Estadio da Luz, should have beaten them comfortably at Old Trafford and, for what it was worth, they had beaten Galati.

"I don't see how you can say we haven't played well," he remarked. "We are second in the Premier League, you know."

Switzerland is not thought of a passionate country but this is a game that is being billed as the match of the year.

The last of St Jakob-Park's 36,000 tickets were long ago sold and the vast majority will go in the hope of seeing one of Swiss football's most remarkable nights.

Over the border in Germany, they still talk of the "Miracle of Bern", when the 1954 World Cup final was snatched from a Hungarian side that had hammered eight past West Germany in the group stages.

"Yes, it would take a miracle to see us through," said Alexander Frei, who had scored twice in the September chaos at Old Trafford.

"For us to have got eight points in this group is already unbelievable. For us this is a match that will decide whether we have a good Christmas or an astonishing one." (© Independent News Service)

FC Basel v Man United,

Live, RTE 2, 7.45

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