Man United pay for missed chances in Basel, yet to clinch UCL last 16 place
BASEL, Switzerland -- Three thoughts on Basel's 1-0 win vs. Manchester United in the Champions League.
1. Mourinho's men miss their chance
Manchester United will have to wait to book their place in the knockout rounds of the Champions League.
They arrived in Switzerland needing just a point to guarantee top spot in Group A and the same scenario will be in place will be the same again when CSKA Moscow visit Old Trafford on Dec. 5 although, in truth, only a seven-goal defeat will see Jose Mourinho's side fail to go through.
But Wednesday's game represented a missed opportunity, not least because CSKA will visit Manchester in between United's a trip to Arsenal and the first derby of the season against Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.
What should have been a chance to wrap key players in cotton wool now has something riding on it, especially as CSKA have their own qualification scrap going on after they beat Benfica.
United were beaten last time they were at St. Jakob-Park in 2011 and went out of the Champions League in the process, while Mourinho also lost the last time he was here, as Chelsea manager in 2013.
He didn't expect a repeat and, with an eye on the Premier League game vs. Brighton on Saturday and a trip to Watford three days later, took the chance to rest David De Gea, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. Nemanja Matic was named on the bench.
The away side controlled the first half and hit the post through Marouane Fellaini before Marcos Rojo hit the bar from 35 yards. Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku were also denied by goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.
It looked a matter of time before United put the group to bed but then, after the break, the hosts took charge. Michael Lang hit the post and Sergio Romero had to make a good save from Serey Die.
Mourinho threw on Marcus Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic but the attacking duo had little impact. It didn't help that Paul Pogba, United's best player, only lasted 65 minutes as he continues his comeback from a hamstring injury.
And, in the 89th minute, Basel's Raoul Petretta fizzed a low cross across the box for Lang to tap in at the far post. It means United will have to wait to be sure of their place in the next round and that shouldn't have been the case.
2. Smalling deals with pressure, Rojo returns
After Chris Smalling made sure he was in the spotlight by insisting he has nothing to prove to England manager Gareth Southgate, it would have been a bad time to make a mistake but the extra pressure, if indeed there was any, didn't show. He was never really tested by Dimitri Oberlin, who often cut a lonely figure in Basel's red and blue.
It was notable, though, that the Basel man was happy to let the United defender come out with the ball at his feet; the gist of Southgate's analysis of Smalling was that he isn't as good in possession as John Stones or Harry Maguire.
Mourinho doesn't seem to care. Smalling has started 11 games this season, an impressive feat considering the competition from Phil Jones, Eric Bailly and £31 million man Victor Lindelof. Rojo, meanwhile, is back after seven months out with a knee injury and made his first start of the season.
Smalling will fancy his chances of remaining first-choice but the question is whether that is enough for Southgate. The 27-year-old threw in a Johan Cruyff turn against Basel, but he is not going to turn into Franz Beckenbauer overnight or in time for the World Cup.
Mourinho has found a reliable defender, who has helped United concede just once in five Champions League games. Southgate, though, appears to want more.
3. Fellaini still key for Mourinho
Mourinho wants Fellaini to stay at Old Trafford and it is easy to see why. He is a Mourinho player, a ball winner in both boxes. When Basel were floating crosses into the penalty area in the second half, it was Fellaini under most of them and one headed clearance even got a nod of approval from his manager.
Fellaini is out of contract at the end of the season and can start talking to overseas clubs in January. Nearly four-and-a-half years after he arrived from Everton, he still splits opinion among United fans.
His manager, though, has already decided but, while United insist they don't want him to leave, the man who turned 30 on Wednesday, wants one last big contract.
Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.