The Red Devils make an assured start to the campaign
United are entering the competition having qualified as Europa Cup Champions last season in a 2-0 win over Ajax in Stockholm. José Mourinho seems to have luck on his side after being drawn into arguably the easiest group of the competition. That being said, Benfica should not be underestimated having reached at least the Round of 16 in their last two seasons. The other two teams in their group, FC Basel and CSKA Moscow, both came last in their respective groups last year and should cause few problems.
Lining up, there are six changes from the side that drew against Stoke. Smalling and Lindelof come in at centre back for the suspended Bailly and Jones. In the fullback positions, Young replaces Valencia and after his shaky performance at the weekend, and Blind takes the place of Darmian. Mata starts showing Mourinho’s attacking intent, and Martial gives the on fire Rashford a break. De Gea, Matic, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Lukaku all start.
As the whistle blows on a rainy Old Trafford it becomes immediately obvious that Basel are playing for the point, sitting very deep with ten men behind the ball at all times. United start with intent, pushing forward with the ball and pressing hard to recover the ball quickly. Pogba captains the side on their 21st Champions League group stage.
The first chance comes in the second minute as a Mata corner falls to Lukaku and if not for a fantastic block, Lukaku would have fired it right into the top corner. Young runs freely down the right-hand side tracking back to defend strongly too. Shortly after he fires a volley wide, chances are coming quickly.
In the 14th minute, Lukaku uses his strength to hold up play well which leads to a chance for Mkhitaryan who heads over. You can’t help but feel that, against a better team, these wasted chances might be costly. Shortly after this Pogba lands awkwardly and pulls up holding his hamstring. Losing a player of his quality for any length of time could hurt the squad but thankfully a returning Fellaini comes on in his place, fresh faced and bushy haired.
Another major chance is missed after a Lukaku cross to Mkhitaryan is pushed onto the post by the keeper from two yards. Lukaku shows that he can create chances as well as score them. Mkhitaryan is in his element here with great positional play and it could be said there is a twinkle of Paul Scholes in his ability to launch a ball cross field to a player in space.
The first Basel corner of the game was easily defended and Mkhitaryan once again tears up the field before getting slashed down by Balanta is a nasty tackle, the first yellow of the game. Early on Lindelof looks calm on the ball in his first game of the season. The style of play in the Champions League is much less physical than in the Premier League and will suit the former Benfica man nicely.
Mkhitaryan threads a ball out wide to Ashley Young who in turn launches a brilliantly placed cross into the box for none other than Marouane Fellaini to head past the Basel keeper Vaclik to make it 1-0 in the 34th minute. Great build up play and a well-deserved goal. You would think this would force Basel to come out of their shell but you’d be wrong, they seem happy to stay compact and play for the low scoring defeat.
The rain is pouring down still and the Basel manager, Raphaël Wicky is getting absolutely sodden wearing just his suit, his coaching staff all wearing thick waterproof coats. My heart goes out to him. Towards the tail end of the first half, Mkhitaryan lights up Old Trafford — first with a phenomenal ball to Fellaini who could only head it down to Basel to clean up as no one was with him, and secondly with a cheeky nutmeg, much to the fan’s delight. The Armenian always seems to be eyeing up chances to embarrass opposing defenders.
As the half time whistle blows United are firmly in control with 69 per cent possession to Basel’s 31. The only negative really is the injury to Pogba. It looks like someone gave Wicky a raincoat during the break too, giving his suit a break from the rain.
Basel start the second half a bit tentatively but are certainly changing their game plan to be slightly more attacking, trying to grab a quick equaliser and return to their previous compact state. It seemed to be working too as they put together a few chances. They lack the end product in the final third though and most of their passing is intercepted.
The Reds look just as dangerous going forward as Martial takes on two before driving a low shot at the near post to win a corner. It is quickly taken short and driven into the box by Blind — right onto the head of Lukaku who doesn’t miss from this distance, 2-0. He just stood still as the ball came to him, the Basel defenders unable to outmuscle the Belgian. There is daylight now between the two teams.
Basel suddenly have an epiphany that if you park the bus when 2-0 down you can’t win the game. Elyounoussi leads the charge forward and they begin to hold possession more. Pressing high up the pitch leaves them susceptible to counter attacks, a big risk when you look at the pace in the United squad.
A poor pass by Mkhitaryan concedes possession and Basel run into the penalty area. Lindelof carelessly slides in and somehow doesn’t take down the attacker. De Gea makes his first proper save of the game from the resulting shot. The United defence holds up against the relatively weak attack — but a better side in the latter stages of the tournament would be more clinical in the final third.
Rashford is nothing if not consistent. He’s scored on his Premier League debut, his Manchester Derby debut, his League Cup debut, his Europa League debut, his England U21 debut, his England debut and now his Champions League Debut. A real poachers goals, a Fellaini cross is missed by Mkhitaryan, nutmegs two before being scrappily knocked in by the 19-year-old.
The whistle blows, a comfortable 3-0 victory at Old Trafford extending the unbeaten run at home to 32 games, since September 2016 — quite the fortress. Man of the match was Marouane Fellaini, and deservedly so, this season he has been the catalyst for United’s success.