After scoring his 49th goal in November 2003, the 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 the distant Chelsea.
Birmingham City, still not completely out of the relegation mire, battled and hit the bar when Walter Pandiani unleashed a ferocious first-half volley, but ultimately, like Arsenal on Tuesday, 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 the reserves of their resilience and even Wayne Rooney managed a controversy-free afternoon.
Needless to say he was not anonymous either and his goal 12 minutes from time 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.
The events at Highbury on Tuesday night hung over this game like the grey clouds that gave Old Trafford an ominous gloom. "Arsenal have a great home record," Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in the match programme, "and scoring four goals was a measure of the quality of our attacking game.
"The fact that we came back in the face of two Arsenal leads was another significant measure of the character and determination of the players."
The consensus after United's 4-2 win was they are now Chelsea's only rivals for the title, but that Roman Abramovich's millions will prevail anyway. Judging by Ferguson's team, however, the old red knight smells the prospect of an upset. Normally he rests players after a big game; yesterday he 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 and his header appeared to be bouncing for the far corner until Taylor's hand tipped it on to the post.
Birmingham, too, had only one player up front, the new signing Pandiani, who did his best to lose his latest audience by saying he would have been happier to have joined Fiorentina and then won it back again with a goal on his debut in midweek against Southampton.
The Uruguayan earned the glorious nickname "The Rifle" in Spain, and it was apparent why after 32 minutes when Birmingham burst into attacking life in near-spectacular fashion. Ferdinand did not clear his lines properly from Mario Melchiot's cross and he must have been astonished by the punishment Pandiani meted out, crashing a volley against the bar. The ball bounced down, hit the line and the television evidence suggested it had not crossed for a goal.
That shook the frame of the goal and United's complacency but they could not breach Birmingham before half-time, and the visitors should probably have taken the lead immediately after it when Julian Gray exchanged a one-two with Robbie Blake. With United's right flank exposed, he should have shot but instead chose to pass and the chance 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 counter- attack. After 52 minutes Ronaldo's cross hit the junction of the post and the bar, the third time the woodwork had been struck in the game, but just when Old Trafford was fearing there would never be a goal, Keane struck.
After 55 minutes Ronaldo's trickery for once reaped a reward 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.
Keane nearly made it two after 77 minutes when he made a 40-yard run, burst through on the left of the area, but the unlikely was unlikely to strike twice and Taylor saved to his left. To little avail. A minute later Kenny Cunningham played a dreadful back-pass, Ronaldo nipped in and, although Taylor raced from his line, the ball fell to Rooney who delicately chipped it over the stranded 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 "Keano".
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