When the Champions League draw was made in Monte Carlo three months ago Wayne Rooney described it as "good", Rio Ferdinand tweeted that it was "decent" and Michael Owen used the words "nice-looking". In short, the Manchester United players were not bargaining for a make-or-break trip to Switzerland at the start of December, when a point is needed to avoid the ignominy of failing to reach the knock-out stages of the Champions League for only the second time since the 1994-95 season.
That is the potential danger United will confront when they travel to Basel for a game that will almost certainly decide who finishes second in Group C, with Benfica, who qualified for the last 16 following their draw at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, expected to defeat Otelul Galati in Lisbon and retain top spot. United remain strong favourites to progress, but the 3-3 draw at home to Basel in September, when Ashley Young scored a 90th-minute equaliser to rescue a point, serves as an unwelcome reminder that nothing should be taken for granted against a Swiss side who attack with real menace.
"It's going to be an uphill battle to [win the group] now‚ we'll need a favour," Darren Fletcher said. "We'll go to Basel needing a positive result, which we probably would have needed if we had won against Benfica anyway, so it's no different in that respect. Going away from home in the Champions League is a big challenge. Basel play good, open, attacking, expansive football and they create chances, so we know it's going to be a difficult match. But we're confident of going there and getting a result."
Although Ferguson refused to criticise his players in the wake of the Benfica game, the United manager must privately be dismayed that they have made such hard work of what appeared to be a relatively straightforward group and, as a result, face the prospect of coming up against stellar opponents in the last 16 stage, much like Arsenal did last season, when Arsene Wenger's side were eliminated by Barcelona after paying the price for qualifying as runners up.
There has been a whiff of complacency about United's approach at times ‚Ä" Ferguson used that very word after the Basel game - and it is a measure of how much of a struggle the group stage has been that United's only two victories have come against a Romanian side yet to pick up a point. The contrast with last season is stark, not least in defence, where United have conceded more goals in the competition than they did in the 12 matches leading up to their final against Barcelona six months ago.
With that record in mind, it is a good thing that Nemanja Vidic has completed his two-match ban and will be available for the fixture at St Jakob Park, where Ferguson will pick his strongest XI and dispense with the rotational policy that has long been a feature of his approach to the group stages. The United manager has given starts to 22 players in the Champions League this season, and although in his programme notes for the Benfica game he defended the need to chop and change his team in the early European fixtures, he admitted that it has "possibly had an unsettling effect".
Most worrying for Ferguson must be the way that United have, uncharacteristically, surrendered winning positions at home against Basel and Benfica. The Benfica match was the first time United have conceded since Manchester City put six past them last month and, in many ways, the 2-2 draw highlighted the difficulties Ferguson is experiencing when trying to tighten up his team defensively but remain freeflowing going forward. Against Benfica, United created far more chances than they have done in recent weeks but they also lost their run of five games without conceding.
Fletcher acknowledged the need to "get the balance right" but he remains optimistic everything will click into place for United over a crucial few weeks. "We're always striving to improve and the longer the season goes on, we'll get into our form," he said. "There's no international breaks or distractions, it's all club football now heading into the busy Christmas period, and we've got enough quality and determination in the squad that we will put it right and find the way we want to play. I don't think the season has been a disaster so far. We're still in a relatively good position."