7 December, 2011 reporting from St. Jakob Park
Upon entering the Champions League match at St. Jakob Park, I reflected that FC Basel would have to execute a miracle to defeat Manchester United and qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League, and if that happened and Otelul Galati miraculously beats Benfica, then Basel would be sitting on the top of their group. But I also reminded myself that in the world of football miracles can happen.
The only reservation I had for a Basel win is that it takes an experienced side with stamina to go all the way, and given their history—this is characteristic of Manchester United. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When I arrived at the media center at approximately 6:30 p.m. to collect my press pass, the room was packed. While my family who had accompanied me to the match met friends for a pre-game Italian dinner, I sat on a fold-out chair under fluorescent lights picking a thick slice of meat from between an oval-shaped roll to produce a cold butter sandwich (I’m a vegetarian) and washed it down with Coke Zero while I checked out the team sheet. I noticed that Manchester United would have to succeed without Javier Hernandez (who is recovering from injury) but they had a fit Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney would start ahead of a disciplinary hearing the next day, in which case he’d remain in Switzerland.
Manager Heiko Vogel knew Basel would have to persevere without an injured vice captain Benjamin Huggel, as he struggled to convalesce. But all eyes on the Basel side were fixed on the young playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri and the more experienced no. 13 Alexander Frei. Basel may not be as inveterate in the football world as their contestants were, but they played with a voracity that commanded attention and a tenacity that guaranteed them advancement in the UEFA competition.
The buzz of news reporters and photographers surrounding me was electrifying. There was no place else on Earth I’d rather have been at that moment—and the match hadn’t even started yet.
As I moved to the press box (I’m seated in the front row) the air was cold and rainy as kingdoms and the sky had already darkened with the fear that FC Basel would not make it—what with Manchester United unbeaten by their current opponents having won once and drawing twice.
As I took my place among the elements of radio commentators and other journalists I remembered that I must appear neutral when the club I wanted to win scores (if they scored.) I would remain stone-faced and go about my business tapping my laptop with numb fingers as if nothing to my liking transpired—to simply report a chain of events. But joy is contagious and if the crowd breaks into that familiar first-goal shout for my side it will be as if I’d just imbibed a magnum of champagne.
I’m not good at hiding my partisanship, but I’m no tyro either. I’ve been here before and I’ve seen esteemed teams win and I’ve seen esteemed teams lose—but I’ve never seen Manchester United this close up.
I leaned back—it was freezing from where I sat—and glanced down at a warm-up pitch to watch The Red Devils flex their muscles, FC Basel stretch.
The whistle blows to commence the game and Manchester United had the ball. It seemed only natural that they’d have a rough time giving it up. But 8 minutes in and a smooth pass from the lightening quick Xherdan Shaqiri to Marco Streller set Basel ahead by one goal, the crowd around me goes mad. I put my head in my hands.
Manchester United attempted to strike back with a vengeance with a shot after shot succession but Basel’s defense wouldn’t let them in and instantaneously I forget all about the weather.
An almost-sure-thing shot by Chris Smalling was saved somewhere in the neighborhood of the 21st minute by Basel’s Yann Sommer. This marked the beginning of what was to come: a weak Manchester defense with Basel’s Shaqiri running circles around them.
A foul on Nani in the 27th minute hands Basel’s Granit Xhaka the first yellow card of the game. A tangle of men and suddenly I look up: Ji Sung park is covered in mud.
Despite superb dribbling by Nani, Rooney failed to clench the ball; seconds later he makes up for it with a shot on target proving too easy for the Basel keeper.
A sliver of hope for Ferguson’s side comes as Nani is knocked down and Ryan Giggs takes a free kick that should have equalized.
Things only get worse for the Red Devils when Nemanja Vidic went down in the 41st minute and is taken off the pitch. Jonny Evans steps in to replace him.
At the start of the second half Rooney continues the same bumbling he displayed in the first half, Park’s got on a clean shirt.
As if they needed to, Basel steps up their game and a powerhouse kick by Shaqiri was splendidly saved by de Gea, and I thought, maybe there’s hope for Manchester United supporters. The pressure is on, Shaqiri is on fire but Manchester United continue to struggle.
Shots here and shots there, scattershot to be exact, all to no avail and suddenly I find we’re in the 62nd minute. It doesn’t look good for Manchester United. Ferguson appears warped. He sends Danny Welbeck on in the 64th minute, Ashley young goes out.
Rooney continues to shoot off target as the 75th min approaches. The time is running into nail-biting minutes for Man United fans—they just can’t get it right. de Gea looks bored, lingering outside the goal, as his teammates untangle themselves across the field.
By this time my fingers are icicles and I’m beginning to care.
Again, Shaqiri comes down the pitch like a locomotive in the 79th minute and is stopped in his tracks by Rio Ferdinand. As desperation rears its ugly head, Park is replaced by Federico Macheda and we wonder what he will do with 10 minutes left. In the 82nd minute the Swiss side’s Chipperfield entered the match to replace Xhaka.
In the 84th minute, Alexander Frei sealed the win for FC Basel. There was no turning back, as Frei goes out in the 87th minute and Genseric Kusunga comes in.
But Manchester United were able to bow out of the competition with some dignity when in the 89th minute Phil Jones managed to rip the ball past Sommer. 3 minutes were added for injury time and within that time Shaquiri goes off and is replaced by Valentin Stocker.
The whistle blows. Manchester United crash out of the Champions League. A miracle occurs which doesn’t quite feel like a miracle considering how well Basel played: they win 2 – 1 and I break into one hell of a cheer.