Football: Keane's return will restore United's balance

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE ARE many naff things about the European Champions' League - the homogenised opening to matches to name just one - but Sturm Graz have capped them all. Based in Austria's second city, the club could have looked back in history to find a name for their new stadium and come up with something stylish. Instead they did the opposite.

The Hapsburgs, the old rulers of the Austrian empire, had a family home and at least two Holy Roman Emperors were born here, but that was forgotten in the eagerness to be trendy. So Graz play at Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadion. Yes, that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the muscle man whose films may not lack action, but whose next piece of convincing acting will be his first.

It all reeks of glitz over substance but yesterday you could not fault the appropriateness of Schwarzenegger's catch phrase: "I'll be back". Not for the Austrian automaton, even though he is in his home town, but Roy Keane, Manchester United's own iron man, who will lead the European champions tonight as they attempt to put their defence of the trophy back on track.

Keane has not played since injuring his hamstring and knee while appearing for the Republic of Ireland against Yugoslavia earlier this month but has regained his fitness ahead of schedule and will re-appear at the core of United's midfield tonight. It could not have come at a better time, because United are suddenly looking vulnerable to the weighty demand of fighting on several fronts. Seven players are either injured or illegible and even their much-admired ability to overcome tiredness and absences appears to be sickly. They drew with Croatia Zagreb in their first Champions' League match last week and were counting their blessings on Saturday when they wrested a point from Wimbledon.

Now Keane has arrived like the cavalry. "He is our captain and a great player," was all his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, said yesterday but he is probably out of superlatives. He knows Keane is the team's heartbeat, a force that is close to irresistible.

Ferguson also knows that United urgently require something from tonight's match if they are going to progress from Group D. Eleven points is his qualification target and two of a potential 18 were squandered against the sturdy walls of the Zagreb defence at Old Trafford last Tuesday. A draw would be adequate but disappointing; a defeat would send alarms all the way back to the United share price.

It was something that Keane himself acknowledged yesterday after confirming his fitness. "We have to get to get something out of this match," he said. "We've already had one disappointing night, we can't afford to let another chance go by."

Nicky Butt did not fly to Graz yesterday so Keane will partner Paul Scholes in central midfield and with David Beckham newly recovered from an ankle injury, United will have a balance that was lacking against Zagreb and Wimbledon.

The only dilemmas will be over the choice of goalkeeper and the left- wing berth vacated by the injured Ryan Giggs although Sir Alex intimated yesterday that place will go to Jordi Cruyff, who scored the equaliser against Wimbledon, rather than Quinton Fortune or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. "He has a real chance," the United manager said. "I thought he was our best player on Saturday when he came on."

If he does play it will mark a notable revival for the Dutchman who has looked superfluous even to United's exacting schedule and at one time seemed destined for a new career in Spain. Now he could solve a problem created by the lack of Giggs and Jesper Blomqvist's long-term absence with a knee injury. "I don't know how much time I have left at Old Trafford," Cruyff said, "but I want to make it clear, I'm as ambitious now as I've ever been."

Ferguson hopes the home team will be equally ambitious tonight because he does not want a repeat of the massed defences his side faced against Zagreb. Graz, who have won the last two Austrian championships but were beaten by Tirol Innsbruck on Saturday, lost 2-0 to Marseilles in their opening Champions' League game and their reaction to successive defeats will determine tonight's mood.

Last year they were slaughtered 6-1 and 5-1 by Real Madrid and if they go for damage limitation, it could be a long, hard night for United. "Any team can sit at defend at their own ground and hope to score on the break," Ferguson said, contemplating the worst-case scenario before discarding it. "It's a home game, it's their big chance and, psychologically, if they beat Manchester United they'll get a lift."

It would be, although the words emanating from Graz were not encouraging.

"We are a small club," their coach, Ivica Osim, said, "and not that good." Which hardly fits comfortably in a ground named after a Hollywood action hero. Schwarzenegger will visit the home dressing-room tonight when, recalling one of his better roles, he is due to give a pep talk on the lines of "you are all Terminators".

By the time United have finished with them, you suspect the word "terminal" will be more appropriate.

Sturm Graz (3-5-2, probable): Schicklgruber; Neukirchner, Foda, Prilasnig; Korsos, Mahlich, Schopp, Reinmayr, Martens; Vastic, Kocijan.

Manchester United (4-4-2, probable): Van der Gouw; Irwin, Berg, Stam, P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Cruyff; Yorke, Cole.