United came into this game knowing that a draw would be enough to qualify for the first knockout round. Unfortunately, after a decent first-half display, they switched off in the second half and succumbed to a rather pathetic 1-0 defeat. A late goal from Michael Lang was all that separated the two sides. Well, that and a desire to win.
Happy to go to Switzerland and get a draw, Mourinho went with a 4-3-3 formation. Romero kept his European place in goal. Darmian, Smalling, the returning Rojo and Blind made up the back four. Herrera sat in front of them, with Fellaini and Pogba given licence to go forward. Martial and Lingard flanked Lukaku who again started up front. Basel lined up in a 3-4-3/3-6-1, with wing backs and wide attacking midfielders supporting the lone striker, Oberlin.
The game started fairly slowly, with both teams trying to feel the game out. United managed to start controlling the game after about ten minutes and went close twice within a minute. The first attempt came from a wondrous no-look through ball from Pogba. Unfortunately, Lukaku couldn’t get the ball out of his feet and hit his shot straight at the keeper.
Basel failed to get the ball away and United attacked again. A high Blind cross from the left found Fellaini at the back post. The Belgian climbed above his marker and headed down towards the opposite side of the goal, only for Akanji to rush across and head the ball clear.
Fellaini had another headed attempt from a deep free-kick, but then the game fell into a rather dull pattern. United kept the ball for long periods, but once they got into the final third they failed to create a chance, often giving the ball away trying to create one. Lingard and Martial were arguably the worst culprits, drifting inside but always running into trouble or failing to find a teammate with a flick. Once Basel won the ball back, they would attempt to go forward but lose the ball almost instantly. The pattern would then begin again.
The game burst into life in the final five minutes of the first half, with United almost scoring three times but failing to convert the chance each time. The first came after Martial cut inside on the left-hand side, whipping in a gorgeous cross that curled inwards towards the back post. Fellaini failed to make enough contact with only his hair brushing the ball. It hit the post and spun away from goal and out of play.
Martial was also involved in the next chance, released behind the Swiss defence on the counter-attack. He sprinted away from his markers but ended up too close to the keeper, his lob not high enough to get over the goalkeeper.
From the breakdown of the resulting corner, Rojo had a pop from over 35 yards out. The shot was bending from right to left but remaining on target, only for a Swiss defender to get a head to it. Rather than clear the ball from danger, it diverted onto the crossbar, leaving the goalkeeper rooted to the spot. So close for the Argentinian, who was United’s best player on his return.
The Reds went had another chance again immediately after halftime, Martial again cutting inside to cross but this time finding Lukaku. The Belgian’s header was poor and was well over the bar. But that was United’s last chance for quite a while. Wicky had obviously had a word with his side at halftime and they came out raring to go. The Reds, quite simply, didn’t.
In the first fifteen minutes after halftime, the Swiss were finding lots of spaces in midfield, breaking beyond United’s press and pouring forward. However, they almost seemed nervous when they got forward, shooting from range rather than waiting to get into the penalty area for a better opportunity.
Around the hour, Basel sorted themselves out and started to create more chances. Steffen had their first, cutting inside from the right-hand side and curling a shot close to the far post, agonisingly wide. After United brought off Pogba and Rashford for Matic and Lingard, Basel hit the bar. United failed to clear from a Basel half chance and the ball was crossed back into the box. Smalling’s header clear instead dropped onto the head of Lang, who outjumped Blind at the back post but could only hit the bar.
Minutes later, Steffen again ran at the United defence, this time getting into the penalty area. He tried to get around Rojo but couldn’t. Instead, he tried to win a penalty with a pathetic dive, throwing a leg towards the Argentinian as he went beyond him. No penalty was given but neither was a booking.
United had completely controlled the first half, but in the second they sleepwalked through the game. The midfield seemed uninterested in being solid, leaving several gaps all over the field and going forward no one was able to string any passes together. There was also absolutely no urgency from anyone on the field. Whether this was because they had been instructed to play for the draw, so were uninterested in attempting to win, or if it was just lethargy was unclear. It was a pathetic display from a team that could have easily won this game but just didn’t bother to try.
Basel were still pushing for a winner, Oberlin halted by a flying Marcos Rojo block just inside the United area. Zlatan then came on for Martial, pushing Lukaku to his right just as he had on Saturday. Strangely, at this point, the game slowed down somewhat, with several fouls halting the pace of the game. It still felt that Basel might get a winner, but maybe the Reds had been good enough to cling to a point?
The short answer, was no. With two minutes to go, Basel grabbed their deserved winner. Elyounoussi slipped in Petretta on the overlap on the left-hand side. The Italian drilled a diagonal cross to the back post, where Lang had got beyond Blind to poke it home. Basel had grabbed the winner simply by trying to win. United had hoped they could see the game out simply by existing. They failed to take the initiative and go for the win or, alternatively, work hard to see the game out. Any hope of building up momentum as they approach a tough Christmas was gone. Two steps forward, one step back.
The cliché is often used erroneously, but this was indeed a game of two halves. United were in complete control in the first half, narrowly missing several opportunities to take the lead. In the second half, they were far too passive and deservedly lost. Although they only need to avoid losing by four or more goals against CSKA in the next game, there is now an added sense of pressure on that final fixture. There are also several questions being asked. Why did United not go for the win? Why did they not close the game out? Are they actually not any good? Was this actually a blip and everyone is reading too much into this? Only time will tell.