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James Lawton: Keane has identified United's central flaw


There was both a ghost and an entirely qualified – indeed, perhaps ultimately qualified – critic called Roy Keane on the touchline of Manchester United's extremely dark night in Switzerland.

The ghost was Wesley Sneijder, a player of guile and authority who would have been in the team that was so plainly unfit for purpose, as Keane asserted, in Basle if the distraught Sir Alex Ferguson had been able to tackle his most crucial task last summer as in the past.

Everyone in football knew precisely the nature of his challenge, and not least himself. It was to re-seed the midfield which was so plainly inadequate in the Champions League final against Barcelona in the spring.

He sought the most expensive item in football: instant substance. What he got was something rather less than that. He got the promise of the future in Phil Jones and the attacking skill of Ashley Young. They were welcome no doubt, but not really the beginnings of an answer to his most pressing need.

He required the money for Sneijder or someone of his proven influence and the rest, including the ruinous need to play Wayne Rooney in midfield, has been so much exterior decoration. For a little while it was attractive enough but the last few weeks have brought desperate consequences.

Just how desperate they were, Ferguson made clear when he turned on his critic Keane.

There is considerable history between the men who during some of United's greatest years might philosophically have been joined at the hip but if it is true their relationship ended on a sour note in 2005, when Keane was sent away around the time the club was last banished from Europe at the group stage, it is also a fact that if anyone was in a strong position to pass a verdict on United's hapless performance it was the man who was arguably the most influential player in the history of the Premier League.

Ferguson chose to attack Keane's status as a currently failed manager. It was not a worthy reaction to his former field general's suggestion that the way United approached the challenge presented by a team which had created such unexpected havoc at Old Trafford in September brought an entirely deserving result.

Keane said that United deserved everything they got – and who could seriously argue?

Specifically, the Irishman was attacking the sense of unforgivable complacency some United players had created before the second game but as a general criticism it worked pretty well at every level.

As a reinstated manager, Keane might pause at the scale of the problems now facing his old boss. But as a witness of competitive character, someone who did so much to underpin Ferguson's work out on the field, it is hard to imagine any more relevant hand being placed on the football bible.

When Ferguson put down Keane so bitterly he was no doubt working on some of his own angst. He had, after all, repeatedly dismissed suggestions that his team had any shortfall of confidence or composure going into such a vital night's work. Indeed, on the eve of the game on which United's whole season may prove to have been hinged, he read out a roll call of all of his team's virtues, suggesting that they had both the ability and the experience to sail through the challenge.

Instead they were fragile and buffeted and in the end simply could not live with the pressure.

So did Ferguson also get what he deserved? In terms of the public face he decided to present, and has done so for so much of a season which is falling so far below the impression of seamless transition that came headily in the first weeks, it is hard to say no.

Everyone is obliged to take the best and live with the rest and at the moment the situation at Old Trafford could hardly be less encouraging.

The Glazer family have been staunchly defended by Ferguson down the years. Where a wider world saw a debt-loading operation which sooner or later would diminish the club's ability to maintain its dominant position in English and European football, Ferguson spoke of owners who had supported him satisfactorily in the years of continuing success.

It is not a case that lives buoyantly in the wake of the Basle disaster and the damaging effect it has on both the club's revenue flow and the old assumption that a high level of success, give or take a notch or two, was guaranteed indefinitely.

In fact, some Old Trafford insiders are still reeling from the message of last week's Carling Cup dismissal by Crystal Palace of the lower half of the Championship. This has been widely interpreted as a shattering blow to the belief that United have a battalion of brilliant young players, led by Ravel Morrison, itching to take up the challenge of becoming the next generation of champions.

Ferguson has proved capable of conjuring success on both the long and the short course. Now, though, he is obliged to do it quickly and to the very limits of an apparently shrinking budget. With a whole season teetering on the edge of undreamt disaster, United's future can wait. They need a Wesley Sneijder now or, practically speaking, not a day later than the end of next month.