Manchester United was deservedly beaten 1-0 by a spirited Basel in the Champions League on Wednesday, leaving all the qualification places open in Group A with one game remaining.
Basel defender Michael Lang struck in the 89th minute to cap an impressive second half for the Swiss champion, which had struggled in the first half when Man United twice struck the frame of the goal.
“In the first half we should be winning 5 or 6-0,” Man United coach Jose Mourinho said. “The game was easy to win.”
In a wildly different second half, there seemed only one team likely to win long before Lang’s goal. He arrived at the far post to slot in a low shot from fellow wing-back Raoul Petretta’s pass across the goalmouth.
Still, United is heavily favored to qualify and leads the standings with 12 points, three clear of both Basel and CSKA Moscow, which earlier won 2-0 at home to last-place Benfica.
Only a heavy home defeat for United against CSKA on Dec. 5 _ plus a win for Basel at Benfica _ can deny the three-time European champion its first spot in the round of 16 since 2014.
“We can even lose the match (against CSKA),” United coach Jose Mourinho said. “It depends on the goals.”
The English giant was made to pay for a wasteful first half when it was in control without ever hitting top form.
Needing only one point to ensure victory in the group, United struck the post through Marouane Fellaini’s header and Marcos Rojo’s deflected shot from 35 meters (yards) cannoned back off the crossbar.
Injured in a 3-0 win over Basel at Old Trafford in September, the return of Paul Pogba in the Champions League had seemed to cast an imposing shadow on the home side’s ambition early in the game.
Pogba took a deeper role in midfield, from where his clever pass in the 12th minute sent Romelu Lukaku clear on goal for a low shot that was blocked by goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.
Pogba’s positioning freed Fellaini to get forward and the tall midfielder could have scored a hat trick of headers.
But when Basel set a fiercer tempo in the second half, Mourinho’s response was to replace the tiring Pogba with substitute Nemanja Matic after 65 minutes.
Two minutes later Basel went even closer when Lang’s header from a right angle struck the angle of post and crossbar.
“I think it had an impact,” Mourinho said of Pogba’s departure. “We were not such a good team without (him).”