....and United Crash Out Basel 2-1 Manchester United
When Manchester United destroyed Arsenal at Old Trafford by a surreal scoreline just a few months ago, who could have predicted that in the final round of Champions League group games Arsenal would be able to field the reserves in a dead rubber, while United would try and fail to secure the solitary point they needed against Basel. It has been a strange and unpredictable season.
United endured numerous warnings on their way out of the competition. They never truly convinced in any game, and were within minutes of losing at home to Basel after leading 2-0. They came from behind to lead the home game against Benfica, but immediately gave up an equaliser that left them in a precarious poition. Still, few if any expected that they would fail to get at least a draw in Switzerland. Instead they succumbed to soft goals and a lack of punch up front that has hampered them in recent weeks.
United started the season in freewheeling form, knocking in goals seemingly at will. They were freakishly clinical against Arsenal and in the game at home to Chelsea they led 3-0 after being outplayed for 45 minutes. Their run of form was ended in spectacular fashion by Manchester City, and Ferguson responded to that scalding defeat by falling back into cautious mode. In the league, it has worked. United have kept clean sheets, and won games 1-0. They are not playing expansive football but that may come later.
In Europe, however, the air of vulnerabilty that City exposed has been almost constant. When United exited the Champions League at the group stage in 2005/06, it was a little less shocking. The group was more difficult, and in the years previous United had lost knockout ties against Milan and Porto, while also seeing Chelsea and Arsenal romp to Premiership titles.
This time, the group was seen as a formality. After all, United have recovered from their 2005/06 nadir to reach three of the last four finals. United have however embarked on a period of reconstruction, as shown by the youthful look of thei line ups this season. As Arsenal know only too well, setbacks are inevitable in this situation. But Ferguson has shown himself willing, where Wenger has not been, to break the bank in order to reinvigorate his side. United's summer transfer policy focused on bringing in youth but January might bring about a different approach.
Olympiakos 3-1 Arsenal
Olympiakos took advantage of Arsenal's patchwork line up to secure a deserved win, only to be denied a place in the next round by Marseille' stunning comeback in Germany.
The game was noteworthy as a reminder of the days not long ago when Arsenal were something of a laughing stock thanks to the infamous Goalkeeper Situation. Fabianski settled quickly into his familiar comic routine, but it was Mannone who provoked the biggest laugh of the night with his slapstick swing at Fuster's tame shot.
The more religious of Arsenal fans will be praying that Szczesny stays healthy and disciplined.