FERGIE MAKES A SORRY EXIT; Streller and Frei Leave United Down with the Also-Rans

Article excerpt

Byline: MATT LAWTON in Basle Chief Football Correspondent

Basle 2

Man United 1

THURSDAY night, Channel Five. Oh the shame. Oh the embarrassment. Oh the abuse that Manchester United will have to endure, even if their nearest and fiercest rivals last night suffered the same fate.

But when the only team you beat are the Romanians of Otelul Galati, you probably deserve to go out of the Champions League.

Just as you probably deserve to lose a game of this importance when your midfield looks like it has been thrown together in a hurry in the vain hope that the contest can be decided elsewhere.

United have experienced so many highs in this competition under Sir Alex Ferguson. Two victories as well as a run that has seen them reach three of the last four finals. But that hugely impressive spell ended with a whimper here at St Jakob Park, the difficulties Ferguson has experienced in building a new midfield finally proving his undoing last night.

Roy Keane was a member of the ITV commentary team last night and he must wonder how United's engine room has dropped so drastically in quality.

Phil Jones is a hugely promising young man but a midfield trio that also includes a 38-year-old Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-sung is far from ideal, even if Giggs executed some beautiful long-range passes in the first half.

In fairness to them, whatever the plan was it went drastically wrong after Marco Streller took advantage of an injury to Chris Smalling and put this determined, wellorganised Basle side in front after only nine minutes.

But it was in such situations that Ferguson could so often rely on Keane or Paul Scholes to take the game by the scruff of the neck -- and last night he had nobody except an out-of-form Darren Fletcher and Darron Gibson.

It has been the story of United's season so far; a reason they were so comprehensively beaten by Manchester City and a reason they have only drawn with Benfica and drawn at home to Basle before losing this encounter.

Last night they weren't good enough, but the difference between now and what happened the last time they failed to progress from the group is what comes next.

Six years ago, Ferguson dusted himself down and came back stronger. Now, thanks to UEFA's obsession with television revenue, they have to suffer the ignominy of dropping into the Europa League and take a road not to Munich but to Bucharest; possibly via Stoke.

There were few plus points last night. Nani played well and Wayne Rooney was certainly keen to go into his appeal hearing in the knowledge he would be playing more Champions League football this season, whatever UEFA's disciplinary officials decide today.

Now, however, he must fear a bad night in Switzerland could become a nightmare 24 hours.

The early signs were ominous when Markus Steinhofer and Xherdan Shaqiri threatened and, after only nine minutes, the Swiss side were in front.

If Basle seized on the fact that Smalling was down after a nasty clash of heads with Nemanja Vidic, it was still woeful defending from United. Not least from David de Gea, who succeeded in diverting Shaqiri's cross into the path of Streller, who replied by driving the ball beyond the United goalkeeper and into the back of the net.

It was a disastrous start for the English champions, one that suddenly put them under pressure against a side with a goal advantage as well as home advantage. There was a response of sorts and Giggs troubled Basle with a jinking run into the box and Nani unleashed a long-range shot that flew over the bar. But the hosts looked comfortable, confident that they could go through to the last 16 at United's expense.

United were already showing signs of frustration, not least in the form of Rooney. He was furious with Nani for trying his luck from distance when he should have passed to his English colleague, and boy did he let him know it. …