The Basel boss continues to perform miracles in Europe with a squad blighted by injuries and departures to bigger clubs - that he will soon follow suit seems only right
By Joe Wright
Against all the odds and the expectations of the continent, Basel made history last season by reaching their first European semi-final. Twelve months on, with dreams of a treble still alive as their domestic superiority continues, the Swiss champions are on the brink of the last four again after dismantling Valencia in the Europa League quarter-final first leg.
All this with a squad size and financial backing which barely register on the Richter scale of the continent's biggest movers and shakers. Little wonder, then, that coach Murat Yakin is becoming one of Europe's hottest properties.
|MURAT'S BASEL MAESTROS
| YANN SOMMER
|Signed by Gladbach as Ter Stegen's summer replacement, Sommer has become one of Europe's finest since 2012.|
| FABIAN SCHAR
|Still just 22, the cultured defender - with a rasping shot - and has been tracked by Barca and Dortmund despite injuries.|
| FABIAN FREI
|The Swiss league's most versatile player played down a January move by claiming suitors "wouldn't know" his best position.|
| MOHAMED ELNENY
|A technically gifted 21-year-old midfielder who starred alongside Mohamed Salah at youth level for club and country.|
| VALENTIN STOCKER
|On the brink of joining Schalke before the deal fell through, thw einger has speed and skill in abundance - and a wicked finish.|
Yakin has changed that perception. After guiding Luzern to second in the league and a place in the Schweizer Cup final, the former midfielder was picked to replace Vogel in October 2012 after Basel picked up just four wins in their first 11 games. Yakin promptly defended Basel's league crown reached the cup final against Grasshopper Zurich. A penalty shoot-out defeat handed their rivals their first trophy in 10 years, and remains Yakin's sole blot on his Basel copybook.
But it was in European competition where he began to capture attention. Building his side around a flexible 4-2-3-1 system, Basel despatched Dnipro and Zenit with minimal fuss before their historic win over Andre Villas-Boas' Tottenham last season. Defeat to eventual winners Chelsea followed, but Yakin – far from accepting an inevitable end to the dream – was already plotting revenge.
Summer brought more transition to the club: the departure of outstanding defensive prospect Aleksandar Dragovic and the retirement of club icon Alex Frei could have been enough to destabilise FCB in the past. But not under Yakin. In came former players Matias Delgado and Behrang Safari, Ivan Ivanov and later Marek Suchy bolstered the defence, and the core talent of Yann Sommer, Fabian Frei, Mohamed Salah and Valentin Stocker was retained.
Yakin also toyed with his tactics. The 4-2-3-1 system was adapted to a 4-1-4-1 for Basel's more difficult games, with Fabian Frei moved into the midfield pivot role (one which Yakin adopted for club and country as a player) to allow more creative freedom for Stocker, Salah and new signing Giovanni Sio further forward. It was a system deployed for spells of the game at Stamford Bridge, as Basel inflicted upon Jose Mourinho his only home defeat thus far since his return to Chelsea and a first win in 20 attempts for Swiss sides in England.
By the time Salah struck the winner in the return fixture - and sealed his own January move to the Blues - Yakin was a noisy blip on the European radar, buoyed by the "beautiful" praise of Mourinho. Hannover made enquiries, which the 39-year-old dismissed; Tottenham, having dispensed with Villas-Boas, reportedly named him on a shortlist of options which included Louis van Gaal and Ajax coach Frank de Boer. Stellar company indeed.
Injuries soon mounted; Schar's three-month convalescence was made worse by a host of further absentees. So Yakin changed again: Frei was moved into the back four, Mohamed Elneny and Serey Die took charge of the midfield engine room, and Basel stayed top of the Super League before putting Europa League top-scorers Red Bull Salzburg out of the competition with a whimper.
Against Valencia, with no recognised strikers available, five defenders sidelined and St Jakob Park empty after a supporter ban, the end of the road seemed inevitable - this was a team who beat Barcelona at Camp Nou, after all. But not so. Yakin started the match with Delgado as a false 10, with Stocker and David Degen either side on the wings. Delgado scored his first goals since September; Basel were free-flowing, supremely disciplined and up for the fight. And yet the win came as no surprise to Yakin's charges.
"It's not incredible for us," Delgado said after the match. "We believed that we could do something like that, for sure. Maybe we didn't think about winning 3-0, but our team beat Chelsea, these lads have a lot of experience with big teams – you can see it, you can feel it." Yakin has never lost by three or more goals in Europe. Don't expect this belief to waver in Spain on Thursday.
On the brink of more domestic silverware and a second-successive Europa League semi-final, Yakin's stock has never been higher, and he will be primed to listen to any offers from abroad this summer as he enters the final year of his contract. The Bundesliga and the Premier League remain the most likely possible destination; some of his Basel stars could even join him.
As a player, Yakin struggled to cement himself at clubs outside of Switzerland. Stuttgart, Kaiserslautern and Fenerbahce (twice) all tried and failed to coax the best from him on the pitch. But should he continue to flourish in the dugout, the man already regarded as one of Basel's greatest-ever servants could yet become their finest export to date.
Vote for your favourite team and win tickets to the UEFA Europa League final!
Follow Joe Wright on