Few teams go into the final game of their Champions League group with 12 points in the bag still unsure of their situation but, after a reckless 1-0 loss to Basel on Wednesday, that is exactly the position Manchester United find themselves in.
The concession of an 89th-minute goal in a match they should have had in their pockets by half-time means they now host CSKA Moscow on December 5 with work still to do to ensure that they will progress to the last 16 as pool winners.
While that doesn’t sound too bad on its own, that game at Old Trafford comes just five days before the Manchester derby against neighbours City.
Just as it looked as though United had set themselves up for a pressure-free fixture as the perfect preparation for City’s visit, Michael Lang slid in at the far post to convert a left-wing cross which had somehow made its way to the bye-line unchecked.
But while the draw would have been enough for United, their profligacy in the first hour was the reason why they were not already out of sight by the time Basel breached their backline.
The visitors were dominant before the break, bossing 74 per cent of the possession and creating a number of decent chances as a result.
Romelu Lukaku was teed up superbly by Paul Pogba but scuffed a left-footed shot straight at Tomas Vaclik, Anthony Martial made an opening for himself with a superb run but couldn’t find a finish, and Marouane Fellaini got into potential scoring positions on three occasions but his best effort came back off the far post. The returning Marcos Rojo also saw a long-range drive deflected onto the bar.
“We lost because in the first half we should be 5-0 and we couldn’t score one goal after being so dominant, and so dominant in such a way that for many periods in the first half it looked impossible not to win,” manager Jose Mourinho fumed afterwards.
“But experience tells that when you lose so many chances you put yourself in this possible situation.”
On the plus side, Pogba was particularly bright before tiring after the break, leading to his substitution shortly after the hour mark.
The Frenchman delivered a performance of superb ball control, excellent vision and great leadership during the first half and both the player himself and his manager will be pleased to get some more minutes in the midfielder’s legs just four days on from his return from a two-month absence due to a hamstring injury.
But his exit coincided with a period which saw Basel come out of their shells. Having sat back and soaked up much of United’s pressure before then, the hosts began to play more like a side needing a win to keep their qualification hopes alive following CSKA’s win over Benfica earlier in the day. United’s response was to freeze.
Mourinho tried to provoke a more positive reaction with the introductions of Marcus Rashford, Nemanja Matic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swede playing the final 20 minutes in his second appearance in seven months following knee surgery.
But, in truth, there was nowhere near enough verve about United’s play after the break and by the time Lang slid home the late winner, it felt like a just reward for the side looking more willing to push for a goal.
United should still make it to the last 16 as only a heavy defeat to CSKA could possibly prevent them from being a part of the knockout phase, but the need to go even close to full throttle against the Russians in the days leading up to the Manchester derby will far from please Mourinho, given his regular griping at how closely some crucial fixtures are scheduled to one another.
City, of course, have already qualified having won five from five in their own group and, thus, have exactly the kind of warm-up United so nearly had themselves. But United’s failure to go for the jugular and wrap up their progression could come back to bite them in the title race.