Ferguson faces another United rebuilding job
© Getty Images

Just as in 2005, when Manchester United were last dispatched from the UEFA Champions League before Christmas, Sir Alex Ferguson will face calls to overhaul his team.

Six years ago to the day, in December of that year, Benfica were the harbingers of United's doom and Lisbon's fabled Estadio da Luz the setting. The scoreline was the same on Wednesday evening - a 2-1 defeat - but the lowly opposition, Basel, and the unhallowed venue, the raucous St Jakob-Park, made the disappointment even harder to swallow.

Six years ago, the United team that fell at the first hurdle contained, in Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, the genesis of the side that would return United to the summit of the European game in the years that followed. Rooney remains from that team, but there are no clear-cut indications that his present-day team-mates will be able to rise to the challenge in the same way that United did when they last went out in the group phase.

Former United captain Roy Keane was the first to sound the alarm on Wednesday evening. "I think it reflects what United have done, in truth," he told ITV with trademark frankness. "They haven't scored enough goals and they haven't beaten Basel or Benfica.

"People have talked about the young players - you've had (Phil) Jones, (Chris) Smalling, (Ashley) Young coming in, everybody building them up, but they've got a lot to do. It's a reality check for some. I'd be getting hold of some of those lads, saying 'You'd better buck up your ideas'. United got what they deserved tonight."

Keane's remarks drew a withering response from his former mentor Ferguson, who subtly suggested that the Irishman's own managerial shortcomings did not put him in an ideal place to comment.

Nevertheless, as United's players sloped back to the team bus at St Jakob-Park, ignoring waiting media, they will have been steeling themselves for the backlash that inevitably accompanies each misstep made by their club.

Midfield engine
Critics will be quick to point to the absence of a creative central midfielder in United's ranks, and Ferguson could have been forgiven for casting an envious eye at Basel's bustling Xherdan Shaqiri as he made raid after raid into United territory on Wednesday. United's fans had hoped for a major signing in that position over the summer, with deals mooted for both Tottenham's Luka Modric and Inter Milan playmaker Wesley Sneijder, but neither came to fruition.

Instead, the Old Trafford faithful formed a quick attachment to 22-year-old Tom Cleverley, promoted to the first team after loan spells at Leicester, Watford and Wigan, only to disappear from the side due to injury. In Cleverley's absence, Rooney is the only player capable of driving United forward in the centre of the pitch, but he is also their most capable marksman and - as Wednesday's performance demonstrated - he cannot do both at once.

Compounding matters for Ferguson is the fact that "noisy neighbours" Manchester City are already five points clear in the Premier League and seemingly impregnable to slip-ups on the domestic front.

Ferguson could not hide his dismay at the thought of the UEFA Europa League booby prize, and United's fans could soon come to regret the snide chants of "Thursday nights on Channel Five" with which they once assailed their rivals at Liverpool. The Scot will be mindful of the fact that United have never won the competition, however, and when the dust settles, he may see the appeal in marking his 26th year at the club with a brand new piece of silverware.

Few defeats can have left Ferguson feeling quite so hollow, but as the young stars of the side that lost in Lisbon were to prove, it is never a good idea to write off either him or his team too hastily.