Football: Keane confirmation underpins United ambition

Old Trafford's mould-breaking deal may cause unrest in Ferguson's camp but it shows European dominance is the club's priority. By Glenn Moore
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TWO MATCHES into the second stage of the Champions' League and it is clear that the cream is rising towards the top, with all four groups being dominated by the game's fatter cats.

While Manchester United were shaking off the shock of last month's Group B defeat in Florence with victory over Valencia on Wednesday night, Barcelona were stepping up a gear in Group A by putting five past Sparta Prague. The previous night Chelsea and Lazio had consolidated their position at the top of Group D while Real Madrid and Bayern Munich took a grip on Group C.

With Fiorentina and Porto likely to make up the quarter-final qualifiers the raison d'etre of the new format - to maximise the chances of meetings between the big European clubs - looks like being fulfilled.

Even if Valencia, who showed flashes of quality at Old Trafford, usurp Fiorentina or United, the last eight would still consist purely of teams from Italy, Spain, England, Germany and Portugal. It would also include five former winners.

Manchester United's determination to stay among this elite was evident on Wednesday, not so much with their performance (they continue to hint at their full potential rather than realise it) as by the deal they concluded with Roy Keane beforehand. At last, it seems, the club's plc board has accepted that it is no use being the world's richest club if you are not going to flex that financial muscle.

In the points mean pounds ethos of the Champions' League the speculate to accumulate principle makes sound financial sense especially if, like United, annual membership of the competition is virtually assured. Keane's deal sent out a message to prospective and current team-mates that United are prepared to pay the going rate to attract and retain the best. It also warned potential asset-strippers, such as Barcelona, Lazio and Juventus, of the challenge they would face in luring the likes of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs from Old Trafford.

As The Independent reported, yesterday Beckham does have his difficulties with his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, but United will not readily let him go. To start with, he has no obvious replacement. Their system relies on a high-quality right-sided player for balance, which is why Beckham remains on that flank. There is no one at Old Trafford who could step into his position and few candidates outside. In the past Darren Anderton might have been the answer, but his terrible injury record would deter an approach. Other potential English-based candidates - Ray Parlour, Kieron Dyer, Dan Petrescu, Marc Overmars and Keith Gillespie - are either not in Beckham's class or are unlikely to suit United's pattern, even if they could be prised from their clubs.

Looking abroad Luis Figo, of Barcelona, is one option - there could even be a swap deal given Beckham's apparent fondness for the Catalan club - as are Internazionale's Argentinian Javier Zanetti or Paraguay's emerging youngster Diego Gavilan. Yet would these players, if United could get them, re-produce Beckham's mixture of passing, crossing and sheer hard work in defence and attack? In the short term, Beckham's agent may be one of several seeking a pay rise for their client to bring them in line with Keane's package, though the club would inevitably counter by seeking extensions to any enhanced contracts.

Such are the risks in breaking a club's wage structure and while Ferguson, having previously been hampered by it in the transfer market, will welcome the precedent Keane's deal has set, internal problems are possible. Some players will accept the need for stars to get extra, some will not.

Gary Neville appeared to speak for the former group when he said: "He's our best player and it would have been a massive blow to lose him; it would have been breaking up a major part of the team."

In agreeing to limit his deal to the end of the 2002/03 season, when he will be approaching 32, Keane has effectively said he will see out the best years of his career at Old Trafford. Given his athletic style he is unlikely to be the same player then as he is now, though he could move back to become a very good defender.

Whether Ferguson will still be at United then is open to question. In the past he has said he will retire at 60 (he is 58 this month) but Keane said the manager was a major factor in his re-signing.

For now, Ferguson is looking no further ahead than this season. Speaking of the 3-0 win on Wednesday, he added: "It was a good result to go into the break with. When the Champions' League restarts in the springtime [against Bordeaux on 1 March] we will be ready. We tend to come good then."