Manchester United face Basel in a Champions League eliminator on Wednesday, with the Premier League champions in need of a draw at the least to progress through to the next round of the competition. The injury list facing Sir Alex Ferguson has made an already precarious task that little more difficult. Ferguson is without Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, and Fabio and Rafael da Silva through injury and Michael Carrick through suspension.
Goal scoring, a problem domestically, has been less of a quandary in Europe. Indeed, with 10 goals in their 5 group games so far United have been prolific on the continent. But the problem has been at the other end. United have only kept clean sheets against the group whipping boys Galati, and conceded a cumulative six goals to Benfica and Basel in three games. The inability to kill off a tie or hold on to a lead, such a rarity for United over the years, is what has left their Champions League future in doubt. It is not a gigantic leap to imagine Basel taking an early lead and defending resolutely, particularly as United’s forward line is today bereft of experience, with Federico Macheda and Mame Biram Diouf next in line behind Rooney and Welbeck.
If the game enters the latter stages with Basel in front, the only result that could put United out of the competition, and Ferguson is forced to turn to Macheda, Diouf or a forward plucked out of the youth team, it will be an opportunity for that player to write their name temporarily in United folklore. The case of Macheda shows that a dramatic late winner – such as the Italian’s against Aston Villa – is not a promise of immediate individual success. It could nevertheless put United on course for relative the success of escaping the group stage as runners-up – only relative since when the groups were drawn, it was generally agreed United should dominate and the other three were merely playing for second place. But that has not transpired, and instead, as it stands, United would be glad to finish behind Benfica.
Should United progress – and it is at least a fate in their own hands – a tough tie against a group winner is likely to await. Bayern Munich, Inter, Real Madrid or Barcelona could all come out of the hat but, before United can countenance what lies ahead, they must ensure they are in the hat too.
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