United crash again as Keane and Ferguson prepare for bitter split

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United, without the injured Keane, lost 1-0 to Lille at the Stade de France in Paris last night to drop to third in Group D of the Champions' League and continue their recent poor form and results. But the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is prepared to retain the confidence of his faltering squad rather than Keane's services, and will confront Keane this morning for the first time since the United captain's now notorious interview.

It seems certain that Keane will not be offered an extension to his contract which runs out at the end of the season. Keane first expressed his suspicion that his contract would not be extended five weeks ago - ironically on MUTV - but Ferguson said two weeks ago that Keane, an integral part of United's success since his arrival from Nottingham Forest in 1993, would be offered a new deal. However, the midfielder believes the delay in opening negotiations reveals the club's true intentions, and perhaps explains his motivation in launching his most personal critique yet of United's struggling players.

Just how frustrated Keane has become was made apparent yesterday when it emerged that he had not only delivered damning criticism of United's young players on Monday night but attacked the motivations of Rio Ferdinand and urged Ferguson to sell those unable to meet the club's exacting demands at the earliest opportunity.

United, and officials of MUTV, attempted to cast doubt on the quotes attributed to Keane yesterday but not on the sentiments he expressed, and it is understood the player is in no mood to issue an apology. Keane's remarks may once have echoed the private thoughts of Ferguson, and have struck a chord with supporters shocked by the 4-1 defeat at Middlesbrough on Saturday that left United 13 points adrift of Chelsea, and last night's European setback which has threatened qualification.

Now, however, there is a sense that Keane has gone too far with his most personal critique ever and that Ferguson would rather maintain the confidence of his squad than a veteran who, despite 12 years' magnificent service, is now only eight months away from leaving Old Trafford on a free transfer.

Assessing the current strength of the Old Trafford squad on MUTV's Play the Pundit feature at United's Carrington training ground on Monday afternoon, Keane is reported to have said: "There is talk about putting this right in January and bringing players in. We should be doing the opposite - we should be getting rid of people in January."

Keane's most personal attack was reserved for the club's £29m record signing and highest earner, Ferdinand, who, he claimed, had slipped into a comfort zone and had failed to show any leadership in a side bereft

of so many injured, experienced players. Keane said: "Just because you are paid £120,000 a week and play well for 20 minutes against Tottenham, you think you are a superstar. The younger players have been let down by some more experienced ones - they are not leading. There is a shortage of characters. It seems to be in this club you have to play badly to be rewarded. Maybe that is what I should do when I come back - play badly.

"These guys thought getting new contracts was the best day of their careers," Keane said. "They think they have made it. They haven't. They owe it to the manager, the staff and the fans.

"I wasn't surprised by the [Middlesbrough] result. I had been expecting one like this. The players have been asked questions and they are just not coming up with the answers. I am sick of having to say it and they are sick of listening to me. They have let down the club, the manager, and the fans."

At no point in the interview did Keane criticise Ferguson. "He will put it right," said Keane, whose condemnation of Ferdinand is intriguing in the sense that his manager might agree.

Ferguson vehemently defended his younger players before last night's Champions' League tie with Lille but offered no backing for a player who held out for an improved contract all summer despite losing eight months of his United career through suspension for missing a random drugs test. The United manager refused to even look at the England international as he left the field at The Riverside, a consequence of an 87th-minute substitution that Ferdinand believes was deliberately designed to humiliate him. The decision to make Ruud van Nistelrooy captain last night suggests that not all Keane's opinions may contradict Ferguson's.

Keane stayed in Manchester for treatment on his metatarsal while United travelled to Paris and will confront his colleagues for the first time since his outburst on their return this morning. Ferguson will demand an explanation from the man he credits as his "voice on the pitch".

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