The Champions League round of 16 tie between FC Basel and Manchester City isn’t just a David versus Goliath affair, it’s a clash of cultures.
The Swiss side are a model club, having grown gradually and organically in stature over the last 20 years through intelligent policies on and off the field.
The first Swiss club to generate over €100 million in revenues in a fiscal year, they are the kind of self-made and sensible club that UEFA dreams of.
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City, on the other hand, have taken a short cut to prominence – a Gulf-oil fuelled one that has tested the governing body’s patience and credulity at times.
The differing objectives of both clubs speak volumes. Basel have sought and achieved domination of the Swiss game. City’s owners ultimately seek European, even world domination, and probably have the means to achieve it.
For the home side, Tuesday night’s game is something of a free hit. This is only the third time they have reached the last 16, a point beyond which they’ve never progressed. No one really expects them to do it this time – and so, in a way, they have little to lose.
Ultimately, it will be an interesting diversion – a chance to test themselves against one of the continent’s most powerful outfits – but Basel’s priority must surely remain a domestic one. The more so given they find themselves in rather unfamiliar territory.
For after eight Swiss titles on the bounce, they find themselves playing catch up – five points adrift of Swiss Super League leaders Young Boys of Bern.
Under new manager and former player Raphael Wicky, Basel have already lost twice as many league games this term (four) as they did in the whole of last season.
For Swiss football expert and blogger Craig King (@FootballSwiss), Basel’s poor early season form stemmed from a self-imposed recalibration that resulted in a period of transition.
The club got a new president, new manager, new players and a new philosophy – and it took them a while to find their feet.
The new philosophy is actually a return to an older one – one that largely prioritised young players over old – and is being directed by the 40-year-old Wicky, who is managing a senior team for the first time in his career.
Young Boys took advantage of this period of flux, and Switzerland is actually experiencing something they’ve not witnessed for some time – a proper title race.
However, King believes that Basel’s current position is likely just a blip and fancies the Rot-Blauen will finish as champions once again.
Any disappointment with domestic form, however, will have been more than balanced by Basel’s Champions League exploits this season.
Four wins from their six games, including a victory over Manchester United and a 5-0 thumping of Benfica, gave Basel their best ever total in the group stage and suggest that City shouldn’t take progress entirely for granted.
So how will Wicky’s men approach Tuesday night’ first leg? King notes that the Basel coach tends to be more cautious in Europe given the step up in class and is likely to deploy the 3-4-3 formation that was so successful this far.
I expect Basel to sit back and try and catch City on the counter. I think with players like the pacey 20-year-old striker Dimitri Oberlin, who has already scored four times in the competition, catching City on the counter is possible.
The approach worked really well in the 5-0 win over Benfica, although admittedly, they are a far weaker side than Tuesday’s visitors.
Basel can also look to previous encounters with English clubs for inspiration. Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea have all been beaten at the tight and noisy St Jakob Park.
According to King:
They can definitely make it awkward for City. I think they can get at the City defence and score. But given the firepower and quality of the visitors, it’s hard to see Basel keeping a clean sheet.”
So the Swiss champions are capable of landing a few punches, but halting City’s European quest looks very unlikely over the two legs.
Even if Basel get some kind of positive result on Tuesday, their two away wins this season aside, they don’t tend to perform well on the road in Europe. Every so often, they produce something, but I don’t see it against this City side, unfortunately. They’ll just be too strong over the two games.