After 25 years as manager of Manchester United, Alex Ferguson is about to experience something new.
United last night lost 2-1 to Basel to exit European soccer’s Champions League at the group stage for the first time since the 2005-06 season. By finishing third in its pool, United drops into the second-tier Europa League for the first time since the tournament replaced the UEFA Cup two years ago.
“We let ourselves down badly,” Ferguson, 69, told reporters after the defeat in Switzerland. “That’s our penalty for not qualifying.”
Since Ferguson became coach on Nov. 6, 1986, United has played two ties in the UEFA Cup and lost them both. Torpedo Moscow won a first-round tie 4-3 on penalties in 1992 and four years later SC Rotor Volgograd went through on away goals after drawing 2-2 at United’s Old Trafford stadium in the second game of the series.
Since then, Ferguson’s only involvement in European soccer has been at the elite Champions League level. The club won the tournament in 1999 and again in 2008 and has been a finalist in three of the past four years including last year, when it was runner-up to Barcelona.
Ferguson said his team’s attempts to retain the English league title and log a record-extending 20th national championship may be hampered because Europa League games are played on Thursdays, meaning Premier League fixtures will be pushed back to Sundays.
“It’s a competition I’ve never been in at United and it does mean one thing -- Sundays right through,” Ferguson said. “Thursdays and Sundays. That’s got to be dealt with.”
Manchester City leads the Premier League with 38 points through 14 of 38 games, with United five points back in second place. The rivals may meet in the Europa League after City also finished third in its group.
United will be seeking to win the second-tier title for a first time. In addition to its three European crowns, it also won the defunct Cup Winners’ Cup and the Super Cup in 1991, and the FIFA World Club Cup in 2008. Under Ferguson, the Red Devils also have won the English league 12 times, the F.A. Cup five times and the English League Cup four times.
“It’s embarrassing to be in the Europa League,” United defender Patrice Evra told reporters. “We should have woken up earlier in this competition. We deserve to be out.”
After beginning the tournament with a draw at Benfica, United had to score in the final minute of its second group game to secure a 3-3 draw at home against Basel after giving up a 2-0 halftime lead.
United then beat Otelul Galati twice before drawing again at home with Benfica, leaving it needing to avoid defeat last night in Switzerland to advance to the round of 16 at the expense of Basel.
United fell behind after nine minutes, when Basel captain Marco Streller scored from Xherdan Shaqiri’s cross at St. Jakob-Park.
United came close to tying it in the second half when Markus Steinhofer’s clearance of a Nani cross crashed off the crossbar.
Alexander Frei added Basel’s second goal in the 84th minute, before Phil Jones scored for United four minutes later.
“Tactically, mentally, physically, everything worked right,” Basel coach Heiko Vogel, who joined in October after Thorsten Fink left for Hamburg, told reporters. “I’m very proud.”
United had 57 percent of possession and had 21 shots to 11 by the Swiss champion.
“We had so much possession of the ball and so many really good opportunities in the last third of the field,” Ferguson said. “We let ourselves down with the finishing.”
To add to Ferguson’s disappointment, United defender and captain Nemanja Vidic left the field on a stretcher shortly before halftime with a knee injury.
“We think it’s the medial ligament,” Ferguson said. “Hopefully that’s the worst of it.”