'Barcelona Moment' Consigns United to the Discomfort Zone
Byline: Chief sports writer MARTIN SAMUEL in Basle Sports Journalist of the Year
THE empire is not, as will be suggested in some quarters this morning, crumbling. Eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage for the first time since 2005-06 and having already shipped six goals at home to Manchester City this season, it is hardly thriving, either.
Going out of the Carling Cup is always an occupational hazard for Manchester United, considering Sir Alex Ferguson's youth-oriented selection. Ending up in the Europa League, however, is as unexpected as a snowball to the side of the head on the first day of winter.
If it is cold back home, it must have been Arctic in the Manchester United dressing-room when referee Bjorn Kuipers signalled the end of Manchester United's participation in the Champions League.
There was always the potential for an upset in Basle but, in truth, few expected it.
United have been here so many times before, needing the away point, that they almost possess a default mechanism for such occasions.
Perhaps that is the sign of changing times at Old Trafford. Rookies like goalkeeper David de Gea do not have the decade of experience; veterans like Ryan Giggs are playing on memory in their twilight years. And Basle were a better team than many had calculated.
They rode their luck on occasions -- such as the 63rd minute when Basle's Markus Steinhofer panicked and hit his own crossbar with an attempted clearance from a Wayne Rooney cross -- but their defence was largely dogged, their counter-attacking dangerous. In opening goalscorer Marco Streller they had a presence to lead the line and cause all manner of awkwardness for Rio Ferdinand. Nemanja Vidic left the field after a clash with him, spelling further bad news for United.
How will Ferguson approach the Europa League? As a consolation prize? As an inconvenience? He will certainly want to take it as least as seriously as Manchester City.
It was no part of the plan for either club; but United do not have first-time nerves as an excuse. Transition? Do they even do that at Old Trafford?
Little known fact. Barcelona took Basle's colours. True. The founders of Barcelona were a band of Swiss, English and Catalan players, led by Joan Gamper, a Swiss accountant who had stopped off in Barcelona on his way to start sugar trading companies in Africa.
Gamper had previously created two football clubs in Switzerland: FC Basle and FC Zurich. He gave his new Catalan team the colours of his home city: red and blue. And there the similarity ended: until about nine minutes into the match at St Jakob Park last night.
For at that moment, FC Basle gave Manchester United the sort of anxiety attack they received at Wembley last May, when taken apart by Barcelona in the Champions League final.
Basle brought the fear. Not as Barcelona had, with almost effortless superiority, but by removing Manchester United from a comfort zone of presumed qualification, ending the smug assumption that this would be a measured procession towards the knockout stages, a single point required and smoothly achieved. …