By Mark Chaplin
FC Basel proved once again on Tuesday that they are nobody's fools in the rarified UEFA Champions League atmosphere. The Swiss side produced a perfect smash-and-grab raid to win 2-0 and pick up three crucial away points against FC Spartak Moskva and set up an enthralling finish to the Group B programme.
The match pattern hardly deviated throughout the 90 minutes. Spartak, who have endured a disappointing campaign, pressed ferociously to keep Basel under constant pressure, and produced some excellent combination play at speed on several occasions.
But the reasons for the Russian side's stuttering Champions League progress were clear for all to see again on a bitterly cold evening. For all their promise, dash and verve outside the penalty box, they failed to produce a telling finish to some skilful approach work.
At the other end, Spartak's defensive frailties were exposed as Basel made the most of the very few chances that came their way. In a stadium only a quarter full, the visitors overcame the discomfort of being unable to build up momentum because of Spartak's constant pressing, counterattacked to telling effect and won comfortably in the end.
Spartak will at least have some consolation in the knowledge that they possess two teenagers of considerable quality in Aleksandr Danishevski and Aleksandr Pavlenko. Danishevski was a darting, livewire presence in central attack, only to blot his copybook with some rash finishing. On the right flank, Pavlenko produced some moments of rare skill, and looks an excellent prospect for the future.
Meanwhile, Basel again displayed a resilience and maturity that has eluded many Swiss sides on their European travels in the past. Although clearly troubled by Spartak's neat combination play and ceaseless pressurising, the visitors, operating their customary 4-3-1-2 system, defended with grit and broke out menacingly.
Hervé Tum's speed was a particularly potent asset in Basel's counterattacks and his pace helped create Julio Hernán Rossi's opener soon after the quarter-hour. Although Hakan Yakin, operating just behind the front two of Tum and Rossi, had one of his less effective nights, his colleagues in midfield covered valiantly in an attempt to keep Spartak at arm's length. Christian Giménez's superb lob for the second goal in the dying seconds was reward for Basel's duress under pressure.
Basel will now face Liverpool FC next week in a showdown for qualification for the second group stage. It will be interesting to see how coach Christian Gross approaches the game. With just a point needed, will he urge caution? Or will he ask his players to up the tempo in an attempt to ambush the illustrious Englishmen? A fascinating game is on the cards.
KEY PLAYER: Ivan Ergic (FC Basel)
A tireless, selfless presence in the Basel midfield with his running, tackling and covering. Ergic also managed to provide effective support to his attack on the occasions when the visitors came forward.
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