After scoring his 49th goal in November 2003, the 33-year-old United captain has been fidgeting in the fretful 40s ever since; until yesterday, when he finally completed his half-century. The end result was the net he had thought he might never find again, and the net result was three points that push United nearer to distant Chelsea. At least for a day.
Birmingham City, still not completely out of the relegation mire, hit the bar when Walter Pandiani unleashed a ferocious first-half volley, but ultimately, like Arsenal on Tuesday, they were eclipsed by the force of United's second-half display. This time, however, Sir Alex Ferguson's side did not need to dig into their reserves of resilience, and even Wayne Rooney managed a controversy-free afternoon.
Needless to say he was not anonymous either, and his goal 12 minutes from the end made the result safe, United's 15th Premiership game without a defeat. As Ferguson says, it would be championship form in a normal season, but Chelsea are making it abnormal.
"That was the Roy Keane of 10 years ago," Ferguson said. "He is an incredible man. In 50, 500 years from now he will still be one of the greatest players ever at this club. It was a good result given the mammoth game on Tuesday night, but we needed something to open them up and Roy produced it. It was a fantastic goal."
As Ferguson intimated, the events at Highbury on Tuesday inevitably hung over this game like the grey clouds that gave Old Trafford an ominous gloom. It was hardly portentous for Birmingham either, because Ferguson resisted his usual inclination to tinker after a big game and fielded, Paul Scholes apart, his strongest 11 fit and eligible players.
United almost scored after seven minutes, Maik Taylor tipping over Cristiano Ronaldo's 25-yard free-kick, and the Birmingham goalkeeper came to the rescue again after 28 minutes when Rooney rose highest to reach Rio Ferdinand's long cross. His header appeared to be bouncing for the far corner until Taylor's hand tipped it on to the post.
But Birmingham had teeth, too, and they nearly took the lead after 32 minutes. Pandiani, who scored on his debut in midweek against Southampton, earned the glorious nickname "The Rifle" in Spain, and it was apparent why when he thundered a volley against the bar from Ferdinand's weak header. The ball bounced down, hit the line and the television evidence suggested it had not crossed for a goal.
The second half began with Rooney being denied at the near post by Taylor, but it was Birmingham who should probably have taken the lead immediately after half-time when Julian Gray exchanged a one-two with Robbie Blake. He had the United's right flank exposed, should have shot but instead chose to pass and the opportunity disappeared.
This heralded a bolder approach from the visitors, yet as they pressed forward they left gaps and United hurried to fill them on the counterattack. After 52 minutes Ronaldo's cross hit the junction of the post and the bar, the third time the woodwork had been hit in the game, but just when Old Trafford was fearing there would never be a goal, Keane struck.
Critics of Ronaldo point to a lack of an end-product to complement his quicksilver feet, and there were reasons to believe he would be ending in another cul-de-sac of his own making when he cut infield after 55 minutes. This time his trickery reaped a reward, however, as he dragged the Birmingham defence one way, then propelled Keane forward the other with a back-heel.
At first the United captain appeared to be looking for the pass, but as Birmingham back-pedalled he cut inside one tentative attempt at a tackle and drilled the ball low into the far corner. "I just closed my eyes, hit it and hoped," he said.
Keane nearly made it two after 77 minutes when he made a 40-yard run and burst through on the left of the area, but the unlikely was unlikely to strike twice, and Taylor saved to his left to deny the double.
To little avail. A minute later Kenny Cunningham played a dreadful back- pass, Ronaldo nipped in and, although Taylor raced from his line to make the block, the ball fell to Rooney, who delicately chipped it over the stranded Birmingham keeper.
Normally that would have been enough to establish Rooney as the predominant personality of the game, but not yesterday. As the teams left the field Old Trafford rang to a familiar refrain. Captain Indomitable had left his mark.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Roy Keane (Man Utd)
It is a cliche to say he is United's driving force; yesterday the captain provided the cutting edge too.Reuse content