FC Basel captain, Marco Streller, has accused Manchester United of taking his side lightly ahead of the final, and crucial, Champions League Group C tie on Wednesday night. The striker says that United took the foot off the gas in the opening clash between these sides in September, with the Reds leading 2-0 in the tie at Old Trafford before the match ended 3-3. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side was thankful for a late Ashley Young goal to secure a point.
United must get at least a draw from tonight’s match at St Jakob-Park to qualify for the knock out stages of the competition. And Switzerland international Streller says that the pressure is on United. Defeat in Switzerland would send Ferguson’s side out of the Champions League at the group stage for the first time since 2005.
“At 2-0, it seemed to me they didn’t take us seriously,” said Streller.
“But after that, I know they will not underestimate us again. They will take us seriously tomorrow because now they know we are a good team. We have proved it already. The pressure is bigger for them. In 99% of the games they play, Manchester United are the favourites. They probably have 30 internationals in their squad and although Javier Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov are not here, they still have Danny Welbeck to come in. I am sure they can cope with the pressure but maybe there is one or two per cent in the back of our minds that can make it an advantage for us.”
Streller’s analysis brooked no rebuked from Ferguson, who has blamed United’s “casualness” for the draw at Old Trafford in September – a point that, with some irony, may just have saved the Reds place in this season’s competition.
But the Scot will be without a plethora of key players for the clash at the atmospheric 38,000 capacity St Jakob-Park. In addition to strikers Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernández and Michael Owen, United also travelled without the da Silva brothers, Tom Cleverley, and the suspended Michael Carrick. However, Rio Ferdinand is fit despite being substituted against Aston Villa at the weekend.
Despite the absentees, Ferguson says his side has the experience, and the record away from home in Europe, to pass what is likely to be a stern test of United’s credentials in this season’s competition. However, the Scot dismissed any notion that key striker Wayne Rooney’s mind will be elsewhere, with the England man set to hear his Euro 2012 fate at UEFA’s HQ in Nyon later this week.
“We’ve played a lot of big games,” said Ferguson.
“Tomorrow is another. People say we’re not doing well but we’re second in the league and we can qualify for the last 16. Injuries haven’t helped but we have a strong squad and the squad will see us through. We need to make sure we try and control the game as we did at Aston Villa. It’ll be a fantastic atmosphere but we’ve had a good record away from home in the last few years and that helps us. Hopefully, it applies itself tomorrow.
“There was nothing wrong with our tactics in the first game [the 3-3 draw]. It was the complacency as we got wasteful with our chances. We showed a lack of discipline in the second half and it cost us an extra two points. But we did our job against Otelul Galati, did well at Benfica and were unlucky at home to Benfica when we should have won.
“I don’t think that kind of pressure affects us. If you look at the number of games these players play in, they are involved year in and year out in semi-finals, finals and quarter-finals and tomorrow is that type of situation. It is another big game and a hard one. We have to rely on our experience in the last few years away from home.”
The United manager has a delicate balancing act in midfield though, with in-form Carrick sidelined through suspension. Darren Fletcher is fit to come into the side, and Ferguson is likely to choose between Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs to partner the Scotsman, while perennial Champions League performer Park Ji-Sung is vying for a place on the wing. The boss will choose between fit again Danny Welbeck to partner Wayne Rooney in attack, a five-man midfield, or moving Young inside.
Meanwhile, Basel will be without key player Benjamin Huggel for the tie, which the Swiss champions must win in order to progress. However, Valentin Stocker did feature against Luzern at the weekend, his first appearance since April because of a knee ligament injury.
Vogel’s side comes into the match in fine form after securing a ninth successive league victory at the weekend – a match in which Streller scored his third goal in as many appearances. The team has now won 15 of the last 19 games in all competitions.
“He’s one of the greatest managers ever but this match isn’t about me against Ferguson. It’s about United against Basel and everything has to be right for us to achieve what we want,” added Basel coach Heiko Vogel.
“I think everyone, not just in this city but across Swiss football, is looking forward to this game. For us it’s a great climax to a successful year – I hope we can pull off the big coup. Everybody can feel the level of anticipation, but the mood with me and my team is of the necessary relaxation. We are focused.
“Man U are one of the strongest teams in the world and the fact they were in the final last year against, in my opinion, the strongest team in the world, speaks volumes. For me Sir Alex Ferguson is one of the all-time greats and he is unique in being at one club and enjoying success for such a long time; it’s extraordinary.”
During the long career Ferguson’s side has only twice lost out in the group stages of the Champions League – in 1994/5 and then in the 2005/6 competition. The Scot is adamant that a repeat is not on the cards on Wednesday night.
FC Basel v Manchester United, St. Jakob-Park, Basel, Wednesday 7 December 2011, 7.45pm
Basel (4-4-2): Sommer; Steinhöfer, Dragovic, Abraham, Park; F Frei, Cabral, Xhaka, Zoua; A Frei, Streller. Subs from: Ajeti, Schürpf,Yapi, Chipperfield, Stocker, Voser, Xhaka, Herzog, Kusunga, Colomba, Buess, Andrist, Kovac, Tembo, Wieser, Kwang-Ryong.
United (4-4-4-1): de Gea; Smalling, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Giggs, Park; Young; Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Amos, Fryers, Pogba, Jones, Nani, Valencia, Diouf, Welbeck, Macheda.
Referee: Björn Kuipers (NED)
Assistant referees: Sander van Roekel, Erwin Zeinstra
Additional assistant referees: Bas Nijhuis, Richard Liesveld
Sir Alex Ferguson will be without seven key players for tonight’s visit of FC Basel in the Champions League, as Manchester United attempt to record a first victory in this season’s competition. Ferguson confirmed that strikers Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández will miss the tie, while Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidić , Tom Cleverley and Rafael da Silva are also absent for last year’s finalists.
Fresh injury concerns this week add to a growing list of absentees at Old Trafford, although Ferguson was always likely to rotate his side against one of the competitions lesser lights. Indeed, with United – on paper at least – drawn in a relatively weak group, Ferguson may use early matches to ensure fringe squad players achieve some playing time.
To that end Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Anders Lindegaard and Park Ji-Sung could play, while Fábio da Silva is likely to come into the side at right-back. And although Ferguson insists that Basel will pose a threat, United supports will expect a much-changed side once again, with Ryan Giggs partnering Michael Carrick in an open midfield, and Phil Jones reprising his weekend role at the heart of United’s central defence.
“Having a squad gives them a better chance of winning things, so they’ve accepted (the squad system) a long time ago,” Ferguson said on Monday.
“And they want to do well when they get the opportunity because as a group we all want to do well. They all have a part to play in the context of the number of games you have in the Premier League, Champions League, League Cup, FA Cup, it’s an exhausting season unless you use your squad. We have been consistent in the Champions League, our form away from home has been outstanding and we hope we can do better this year and win it, that’s the aim of this club all the time.”
“They’ve always been among the premier teams from Switzerland [which] has been producing very good young players for quite a few years now. Basel too have very good experience in Europe, so I expect to see that from them tomorrow.”
In Basel United faces an attractive side, unlike – some might argue – the Swiss national side at last summer’s World Cup in South Africa. Yet the odds seem stacked against the Swiss, with United having won 32 and drawn just three in an unbeaten streak at Old Trafford that dates back to Chelsea’s controversial win in April 2010.
Yet in Alexander Frei, Basel boasts a striker whose record at both club and international level is impressive. The locally-born forward has scored 48 times in 64 games since returning from Borussia Dortmund in 2009, while he has a one-in-two record over 84 international caps for Switzerland.
“We’re coming here as outsiders,” Frei is told Uefa.com.
“We’re not expecting to make the impossible possible, but why shouldn’t we achieve something? We’re going to be fully committed and give 100 per cent for the whole 90 minutes and we’ll see what happens.
“When I left Borussia Dortmund for Basel, I was hoping to experience Champions League fever again, and I’ve been able to do so twice in two seasons. I’d love to play on at this level for another three or four years to hopefully play at other big European grounds too like Barcelona’s and [Real] Madrid’s.”
Meanwhile, German coach Thorsten Fink insists his side arrives at Old Trafford with a positive mindset, despite being classed as rank-outsiders. Basel earned a 1-1 draw on the last occasion these sides met in 2002. However, Fink is missing key playmaker, and outstanding young prospect, Xherdan Shaqiri through suspension
Fink was a member of the Bayern Munich that United famously beat 2-1 at Camp Nou in the 1999 Champions League final. But the coach, who replaced former Tottenham Hotspur coach Christian Gross as Basel’s manager in 2009, inists the game is about points, not revenue for ’99.
“We haven’t come here to sit and watch, we’re here to play,” claimed Fink.
“It’s going to be a challenge but we’re looking to get something out the game. To do that we’ll need to be tight at the back as United are clearly very strong in attack. They’re one of the favourites for the competition alongside Barcelona, but we’ve got experience, good young players and we won’t play with any fear. We’ll see what happens.
“There is no question of me trying to get even for [the 1999 UEFA Champions League final defeat with FC Bayern München]. I’m here as a coach, I’m glad to be here and so are the players. I have great memories of that game even though we lost, as I always think that everything that hurts you makes you stronger.
“We went on to win the Champions League in 2001 so that 1999 defeat definitely made Bayern stronger. We played well that day [in 1999] but it proved that if you let your guard down for a moment against a team like United you get punished.”
And even if that United team contains a host of changes from the exciting side that won its first five Premier League games in a row, the smart money still lies on a comfortable win for the Reds tonight.
Manchester United v FC Basel, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 27 September 2011.
United (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Fabio, Jones, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Welbeck, Berbatov. Subs from: de Gea, Amos, Fletcher, Fryers, Pogba, Nani, Anderson, Diouf, Young, Owen.
Basel (4-4-2): Sommer; Steinhöfer, Dragovic, Abraham, Park; F Frei, Cabral, Xhaka, Zoua; A Frei, Streller. Subs from: Ajeti, Schürpf, Huggel, Streller, Yapi, Chipperfield, Stocker, Voser, Xhaka, Herzog, Kusunga, Colomba. Buess, Andrist, Kovac, Tembo, Wieser, Kwang-Ryong.