It wasn’t so long ago that Swiss team Basel possessed a reputation for being a scourge of English clubs in European competition.
Back-to-back victories over Chelsea in the Champions League group stage in 2013. Elimination of Tottenham in the Europa League quarterfinals a season earlier. The season before that, the famous 2-1 home win over Manchester United that denied England’s biggest club a spot in the Champions League knockout stage.
No wonder United manager Jose Mourinho sounded a note of caution when Basel was drawn as a group-stage opponent in this season’s Champions League.
In reality, though, United the current leader of the Premier League should have little to worry about when it opens group play against the Swiss champion at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
Basel has started its bid for a ninth straight Swiss league title with as many losses in seven games two as it had all last season, when the team finished 17 points clear. Fans whistled the players off the field Saturday after a 2-1 home loss to last-place Lausanne.
It has been a tough start for rookie coach Raphael Wicky, who pits his wits against Mourinho in just his ninth senior competitive game. The 40-year-old Wicky was an experienced midfielder for Switzerland, though his highest coaching level before this season was in UEFA’s youth version of the Champions League.
Wicky inherited a squad with fewer of the top Swiss prospects Basel has relied upon _ and typically sold quickly to Bundesliga clubs _ in its title-winning run.
When players like Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Breel Embolo were sold in recent years, they were often replaced by shrewd acquisitions like Mohamed Salah, who left Basel for Chelsea after his goals beat the current English champion four years ago.
Now, Basel’s best offseason signing is a player who already failed to meet the Premier League’s standards. With seven goals in seven league games, Dutch forward Ricky van Wolfswinkel might make Norwich fans wonder why he scored just a single goal in their relegation season of 2013-14.
A sign that Basel is no longer the force of old _ at least in the eyes of English opponents _ came last season when the team managed by Urs Fischer was swept aside in 2-0 and 4-1 losses to Arsenal in group play.
United has won three of its first four league games and has been more clinical this season, with new striker Romelu Lukaku scoring five goals in five matches in all competitions and midfielders Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan looking more dangerous going forward.
Anything other than a comfortable win for United would be a surprise on its return to Europe’s top competition after missing out last season. United qualified by winning the Europa League.
“To be humble is to admit the opponent has the same ambition as we have and that the opponent can perfectly come here, like they did in the past, and give Manchester United a bad taste,” Mourinho said, in reference to the teams’ last meeting at Old Trafford six years ago when United needed a 90th-minute goal from Ashley Young to escape with a 3-3 draw.
“But we are strong, we are playing well, we have good confidence in ourselves.”
Basel will look to exploit a potential weakness at center back for United, with Phil Jones and Eric Bailly _ the starting combination in the Premier League _ both suspended. Chris Smalling and offseason signing Victor Lindelof will start instead, while Lukaku makes his Champions League debut in the Group A match.