Ferguson sees Keane and Ballack off to Real

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Fifteen days ago, Roy Keane was clocking in at Manchester United and Michael Ballack was in clandestine negotiations to become his replacement. Now both have vanished from the midfield plans of Sir Alex Ferguson and, as though to reinforce the sense of rapidly changing times at Old Trafford, the United manager yesterday predicted that both his past and intended future captain would play for Real Madrid in 2006.

Ferguson has had no contact with Keane since their acrimonious parting by "mutual consent" and still refuses to be drawn on any question containing the Irishman's name. Yet rare is the football gossip that escapes "The Ayatollah", as the United manager is known among his peers, and though he could not shed light on the managerial shenanigans at Portsmouth, this evening's visitors to Old Trafford, the Scot was more forthcoming when asked about the latest developments with Bayern Munich's captain, Ballack. "I've heard he's signing for Real Madrid, that he's agreed to go to Real Madrid," he replied. "That's what I'm hearing anyway. I've heard that about Roy, too. For five months, January to May. It's possible."

Ferguson may have been in one of his mischievous moods as he made the pronouncement but, given the esteem in which both players are held at Old Trafford, it would represent an ill-advised joke.

His view on Ballack has foundation, as Bayern expect the 29-year-old to sign a pre-contract agreement with Real in January, then move to the Bernabeu after the World Cup. It also explains why the United manager publicly withdrew his interest in the Germany captain last week, rather than a claim that, following months of negotiations, he had come to the realisation that Ballack occupied a role filled by Wayne Rooney.

His thoughts on Keane's career path are more intriguing and, if true, would see the 34-year-old signing a short-term deal with a view to an extension. The Everton manager, David Moyes, yesterday confirmed that he had spoken to the midfielder's representative, Michael Kennedy, about a move to Goodison Park, but that was a fortnight ago and the Merseyside club's interest has since ended.

One firm development in the Keane saga is that Gary Neville has been installed as his successor as the United captain. "Gary is a fantastic character. His attitude has always been 100 per cent, his service to the club has been outstanding for the last 10 years.

All these factors made it easy for me," revealed Ferguson. "We have a young squad so I also needed someone with the respect of the dressing-room. Gary has championed a lot of the young players' causes over the years. He has come to see me over their contracts time and again, so they obviously respect him, to go to him or Roy Keane in the first place."

Ryan Giggs, one of the senior players considered for the captaincy, is included in today's squad for the first time since fracturing a cheekbone against Lille on 18 October, while Louis Saha will be involved following an impressive return against West Bromwich Albion in midweek.

United's improving injury situation has also extended to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A mere six days after Ferguson expressed fears for his career following two years on the sidelines with a knee injury, the striker will make his comeback against Liverpool reserves on Monday.

"He came out and trained with us on Thursday, which I was very surprised about," said the poker-faced Scot. "He was fantastic so, just as a carrot, I said he was ready to play and he replied that he wanted to."