It wasn’t exactly a job well done, but it was mission at least somewhat accomplished two weeks ago in Lisbon, as Manchester United opened their Champions League campaign with a 1-1 draw at Benfica. Tonight, United will look to record their first group win and claim pole position in Group C as they welcome Swiss side FC Basel to Old Trafford. It’s a certainty that we’ll see a less than full strength side, perhaps more so because of the spate of injuries that have crept up for United recently than tonight’s opposition, but a comfortable victory should nonetheless be on the horizon.
When last these two sides met, they were paired together in the second group stage of the 2002/03 Champions League (the last competition to have that format)
In their first meeting, in November 2002, Basel took a first-minute lead at home through Christian Gimenez, and they held that lead for an hour. But three goals in seven minutes, the first two in quick succession by Ruud van Nistelrooy and the last one by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, gave United a 3-1 win.
When they met at Old Trafford the following March, Gimenez once again gave Basel an early lead, scoring in the 14th minute. United would equalize shortly after the restart, as Gary Neville scored the first of his two career European goals, and the match would finish 1-1.
Basel’s quest to win a third straight Swiss Super League title got off to a slow start, as they won only one of their first six matches, but their form has improved tremendously over the last month.
They were denied a fourth straight league win on the trot on Saturday at FC Thun, surrendering an 81st-minute equalizer in a 1-1 draw, but they’re back on track domestically, and they also started their Champions League group stage campaign on a good note, defeating Otelul Galati 2-1 at home.
Basel have a bevy of young talent that will be on display tonight, but two of the most notable talents won’t be in action. Winger Xherdan Shaqiri, linked with many of Europe’s top clubs including United, is absent due to suspension, while highly-rated midfielder Valentin Stocker, who has been linked with Liverpool in the past, is still out for a while after tearing cruciate ligaments in his right knee in late April.
The Swiss champions do have a few other familiar names in experienced strikers Alexander Frei and Marco Streller, and Czech defender Radoslav Kovac, who was with West Ham for the previous season and a half before joining Basel in the summer.
United’s current injury situation is not ideal, to say the least.
With Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez both sidelined, the options for tonight’s front-line pairing are Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, and Danny Welbeck. Any pairing that involves Rooney would be preferred, given his current form, but any two from those three have more than enough quality to get the job done tonight. Then again, there’s the realistic chance we could see only one man up front, as was the case against Benfica.
Defensively, Nemanja Vidic are Rafael are both still absent, and Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling didn’t train yesterday, so the back four tonight could well consist of Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Phil Jones, and maybe even Antonio Valencia, who was pushed into emergency starting duty at right back after Evans pulled a muscle ahead of Saturday’s draw at Stoke City.
Looking beyond the injuries, it’ll be interesting to see what other selection decisions Fergie makes for tonight. Will we see a more ‘conservative’ midfield as we saw at Benfica, or will Fergie send out some big guns with the intention of starting fast and finishing Basel off early?
Even without a number of key players, United should take care of business against a Basel side that’s not as strong as it could be either. The earlier the lead the better, the earlier the result is put beyond the doubt the better, and last but certainly not least, the less banged-up United end the night the better.
Score Prediction: Manchester United 3-0 Basel