Manchester United have already arrived in Basel, Switzerland ahead of their UEFA Champions League Matchday 6 tie versus FC Basel. The Reds currently sit level on points with SL Benfica at 9 but the Portuguese side top Group C due to an away goal tiebreaker in their two head-to-head match-ups. Basel lurk right behind them with 8 points.
In the reverse fixture with Basel at Old Trafford on September 27, United went ahead 2-0 in the 1st-half after two goals from Danny Welbeck within an 82 second span. The Reds appeared to be on their way to a rout. However, the Swiss side surged back and shockingly took the lead in the 76th minute after bagging three goals inside of a 18-minute span. Only a 90th minute equaliser from Ashley Young saved United from an embarrassing defeat.
The objective for United is fairly simple: a result will send them through to the knockout stages while Benfica will need to only match that result if they hope to top the group. However, if Benfica unexpectedly slip up versus Otelul Galati in Lisbon, United can still win the group with a result that betters the Portuguese side's. A defeat by Basel for United would send Sir Alex Ferguson's side to 3rd in the group -- which would result in elimination from the competition and unappealing Thursday night fixtures in the Europa League.
Form Guide: United come into the match sitting 2nd in the English Premier League table. Four of their past five league matches have resulted in 1-0 victories, including their away victory this past weekend over Aston Villa. Going further back, the Reds have scored only a single goal in 8 of their past 9 league ties. This is in sharp contrast to the 21 goals they scored in their opening 5 games. United were eliminated from the Carling Cup a week ago in a shock defeat by Crystal Palace at Old Trafford.
Team News: Injuries have ravaged the club this season and quite a few players were left behind in England when the club traveled to Switzerland. Central-midfielders Tom Cleverley and Anderson remain out due to long-term injury as does striker Michael Owen. Striker Dimitar Berbatov and defenders Rafael and Fabio all sustained knocks last week vesus Palace and each is unavailable against Basel. Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) damaged ligaments in his ankle this past weekend and he is expected to be out for a month. In that same tie at Villa Park, center-back Rio Ferdinand was substituted off as well after a knock but he was amongst the 22 players that traveled to Basel. Central-midfielder Michael Carrick is also unavailable for the match because of suspension.
Form Guide: Basel enter the match top of the table of the Swiss Super League -- 6 points clear of Lucerne after defeating them 1-0 this past weekend. The champions of Switzerland have won their past 7 league matches and are unbeaten in their past 11. Basel failed to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League last season and a victory over United would allow them to reach it this season.
Team News: The Swiss side have a clean bill of health and no players will be serving suspensions for this match.
United: Injuries and suspension are severely limiting Fergie's selection options so this projection is a tab bit easier than normal. Perhaps the biggest question is whether United will play with two or three players in central-midfield.
I'll start with the defense. No. 1 David De Gea is expected in goal after being rested versus Villa. Captain Nemanja Vidic is a certainty at center-back as is Patrice Evra at left-back. If Ferdinand is not deemed fit enough, then Chris Smalling or Phil Jones would be the likeliest candidates to start alongside Vidic. At right-back, the selection choice comes down to either Smalling and Jones.
In midfield, Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs are likely to start and if Fergie elects to use a third player in the center of the park, Jones is a possibility as well. Darron Gibson, who just made his debut appearance this season for United versus Palace, is a less likely candidate to start. Out wide, the choices will come from either Nani, Ji-Sung Park, Antonio Valencia, and Ashley Young. All but Valencia -- who only plays on the right side -- are capable of playing on either flank.
Up top, Wayne Rooney is an automatic selection. If he plays with a partner, Danny Welbeck is favored to start alongside him. However, fitness may be a concern for Welbeck as he has just returned from a muscle strain. Fergie's likely third-choice is Federico Macheda after the injuries to Berbatov and Owen.
My gut feeling is that Fergie may elect to play his side in a 4-5-1 shape at the start of this match, although 4-4-2 could reasonably be anticipated as well. It's obviously anyone's guess.
Basel: The choices for caretaker manager Heiko Vogel appear to be more straight-forward. In goal, Yann Sommer is expected and the center-back pairing is likely to be Aleksandar Dragovic and David Abraham. Expect Park Joo-Ho and Markus Steinhofer to flank them in defense -- on the left for the former and on the right for the latter. In the center of the park, Granit Xhaka is expected to start and he will likely be partnered by either Benjamin Huggel or Cabral. Out wide in attack, Xherdan Shaqiri is anticipated on the right while Fabian Frei is likely on the left. Alexander Frei and Marco Strellar are the expected striker tandem.
* Full-back track back: An problem that United had with Basel during their 3-3 draw at Old Trafford was their full-backs continually being caught out of position. In that match, Fabian Frei continually slipped inside of Patrice Evra into the space between the lines and created problems for United there. Basel's wide left player in that match, Jacques Zoua, simply got in behind Fabio because the United right-back for that match was essentially positioned as a 2nd right-winger for the majority of that match. The dangerous Xherdan Shaqiri was suspended for the reverse fixture but he is likely to feature on the right in this match. Evra must be wary of his counterpart as the Basel attacker is one of his side's chief creator of chances. Shaqiri has averaged 2.3 key passes and 2.0 accurate crosses per game thus far this season in Champions League play. F.Frei will likely be deployed on the left-side (he was on the right in the reverse fixture) where he will look to drift inside and into the space between the lines. Whether it is Smalling or Jones, the United right-back must be aware of Basel's fluidity in attack -- both positioning and communication will be vital.
* Occupy the space between the lines: Gaps were much too large for United between their center-backs and central-midfielders in the reverse fixture. This problem was magnified when United's full-backs caused their center-backs to also be stretched laterally while providing cover. The result was United's center-backs often being exposed one-on-one in space and with no cover. Basel's fluidity in attack took full advantage. In this match, if United play with only two in central-midfield, those players must attempt to stay more compact with the defenders behind them. It is possible that Fergie addresses this issue by deploying a true holding player in this space as the base of a midfield trio.
* Achieving balance between attack and defense: If United do stay compact in the back, this could result in too much separation between the central-midfielders and attack, unless a high line is played -- which is unlikely. If a true holding player is deployed, at the expense of a forward (such as in United 1-1 dull draw with Liverpool), then the Reds may fall victim to becoming too functional and stale in attack. If United sit deep, can they find away to attack Basel with pace and drive on the counter? If they show more ambition to dictate the match higher up the pitch, can they keep it organized in the back so that they aren't so vulnerable to Basel's attack? Can they achieve a proper balance?
KO: 7:45pm GMT, 2:45pm EST -- St. Jakob-Park
TV: ITV 1 (U.K), Fox Soccer (U.S.)
Referee: Bjorn Kuiper
Odds: FC Basel 9/2, Draw 14/5, Manchester United 14/5
TBB prediction: Basel 1-2 Manchester United