FC Basel vs. Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League: Biggest Game of the Season for Sir Alex Ferguson
Like a decaying European dynasty, Manchester United are fading away in both the Champions League and Premier League and face the most important game of their season on Wednesday.
At St. Jakob-Park, the Red Devils will fight for survival in the world's most prestigious and lucrative club competition, knowing they must avoid defeat to stay in the tournament.
That is a lot harder than it sounds.
A huge psychological battle, the game in Switzerland will at the very least have profound effects on United's 2011/12 campaign.
The need for only a draw could see United affected by the corrosive tentacles of complacency, while the inevitable fervent hostility toward the away side could also be a factor. And of course, there's also that spectre of failure.
Lose, and they'll be relegated to the Europa League.
Not too bad it seems, as the Europa League is still a prestigious tournament with good all-round profitability—everything from increased ticket and merchandise sales from extra matches, to increased TV and sponsorship revenue the club otherwise wouldn't get, as well as the extra prize money, of course.
However, for a club like Manchester United, it would be far from ideal. The Europa League is a tournament for clubs looking improve their history, prestige and brand equity up to the levels of the elite.
So for teams like Chelsea and Manchester City, it would be no problem. Undergoing a revolution at Stamford Bridge with the leadership of Andre Villas-Boas, it would be the first stride to winning a so-far elusive Champions League title.
Who Will Win?
But for United, three-time Champions League winners and England's most successful club, a team with the third-highest revenue, prestige and brand equity in the world (behind Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, of course), Europa League football would bring no real benefit.
Imagine the public outcry in Spain—and across the world—if either of Real Madrid or Barcelona crashed out at the group stages.
If United were to lose against FC Basel, it could destroy their season.
Unwanted Europa League games, European ambitions dashed, a damaged morale in the dressing room, discontent from the fans and board of directors—it'd be a disaster for the Red Devils.
It could turn out to be the 2005/06 season all over again.
That season, United finished bottom in Group D of the Champions League, losing out to Villarreal CF, who finished top and SL Benfica, who finished second.
Even Lille finished higher than United, bettering the Red Devils on their head-to-head record.
The outcome that season? Captain Roy Keane quit the team in November, top-scorer Ruud Van Nistelrooy had a huge bust-up with Cristiano Ronaldo and Sir Alex Ferguson, and United finished eight points behind Jose Mourinho's Chelsea in the Premier League.
They also crashed out of the FA Cup in the fifth round and couldn't get the best out of young stars Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney.
The pressure and tension also hit the on-pitch performances of new signings Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, who both later admitted to finding it hard to settle in at first.
They still managed to finish second in the league, though, although that was partly helped by their League Cup title victory, as they beat Wigan Athletic 4-0 in the final (with a certain Louis Saha finding the net alongside Rooney and Ronaldo).
And in 2011/12, Manchester United simply can't afford to have a 2005/06 season.
With Manchester City finding the Premier League a doddle, Tottenham Hotspur a more confident side than they've ever been and the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool still able to spring a surprise at any moment, United need confidence going into every league game.
As we approach the all-important Christmas period, to crash out of the Champions League would completely drain that confidence, and could leave them lagging behind—especially seeing as United have hardly been scintillating recently.
And it's not like Sir Alex Ferguson's side even have the League Cup to give that self-efficacy a top-up.
A hugely disappointing home defeat to Crystal Palace, which proved United's strength in-depth and rising stars aren't as talented as first thought, left Sir Alex having to apologise to the fans—never good for team morale.
To avoid a disastrous campaign which could see United trophy-less and their Champions League status for next season genuinely under threat, the team need to win in Basel on Wednesday.
While losing would paint a genuine picture of the murky underworld of the consequences arising from failing the season's primary objective, a win in Basel would change the record entirely.
Should United draw or emerge victorious in Switzerland, not only would relief and freedom from the shackles of pressure air around Carrington and Old Trafford, but they would also gain that vital confidence a hugely important win brings.
Especially if they won in swashbuckling style (and/or Chelsea and/or Manchester City crashed out of the Champions League), which would give United the belief they're still genuine contenders domestically and in Europe.
In essence, United's campaign will fall in one of two directions on Wednesday night.
They could either see their status as one of Europe's untouchable juggernauts slip away as they pale into insignificance this season.
Or they could remind bitter rivals Manchester City and all other pretenders to the throne of their power and prestige as a European elite, battling their way to more domestic and continental success.
So, to the Manchester United players, win and you can jump back on the gravy train you were riding in September. Lose, and it could be one of the worst seasons of your lives. No pressure, lads.