Keane survives Inter baptism

Kevin Buckley in Milan says the Irishman has won new admirers
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The Independent Online

Robbie Keane probably had little idea just what he was letting himself in for when he came to Serie A from Coventry last summer. Lacklustre form has seen Internazionale booed by home fans, and banners calling for the sacking of Marcello Lippi. The silver-haired former Juventus coach defiantly responded: "Even a bomb under my house won't make me quit."

Robbie Keane probably had little idea just what he was letting himself in for when he came to Serie A from Coventry last summer. Lacklustre form has seen Internazionale booed by home fans, and banners calling for the sacking of Marcello Lippi. The silver-haired former Juventus coach defiantly responded: "Even a bomb under my house won't make me quit."

Football gossip in Milanese bars says the club chairman, Massimo Moratti, issued one of his frequent "win the next two matches or you're out" ultimatums. And all this before a ball has even been kicked in the Italian domestic season, which starts this afternoon.

In this calcio cauldron, the initial assessment of Keane's Italian adventure has to be "so far so good". The 20-year-old has equipped himself well in Inter's handful of competitive games, including the calamitous defeat in the Champions' League qualifier against Helsingborg, two Uefa Cup ties and the Italian Cup.

In early August, perhaps recalling he had been playing in the English First Division just 15 months before, he had looked genuinely shell-shocked at his welcoming press conference at Inter's summer training retreat. His well-meant quip that he would use his substantial pay rise "to buy a few goals for Inter" could have been embarrassing, but no one held it against him for being unaware of the venomous bribery allegations that had undermined the last "poisoned season" here in Italy.

He has put hardly a foot wrong since. Importantly, he has quickly won over the fans with his sheer physical commitment, and a never-say-die attitude. "I liked him straight away," said Roberto Omini of Corriere dello Sport. "He moves a lot, even without the ball, and that's something that a lot of Inter players don't do enough."

Linguistic barriers apart, Keane is already establishing a good understanding with the rest of the squad. His neat diagonal through-balls set up Clarence Seedorf and Corraso Colombo for goals in the 4-1 Uefa Cup romp last Thursday against Ruch Chorzow, allowing the side to leave the San Siro pitch for the first time this season unassailed by a chorus of derisive whistling.

He has been regularly scored at 6.5 and even 7 out of 10 by most sports papers. Reports of his consistency will be music to the ears of Mick McCarthy, as he prepares his Republic of Ireland side for a tough World Cup qualifying match in Lisbon against the Portuguese Euro 2000 semifinalists on Saturday.

For Inter, Lippi's favoured4-3-1-2 formation puts Keane up front alongside Hakan Sukur, where three goals in half a dozen outings by the Irishman have certainly helped both old manager and new man to come through a difficult period.

So far Keane has partnered the buccaneering striker Ivan Zamorano, who has been away on Olympic duty for Chile, for only 20 minutes, against Helsingborg. Although another fans' favourite, Alvaro Recoba, is undoubtedly much more talented on the ball than Keane, the Irish international isquicker than the 24-year-old Uruguayan, and Lippi has substituted one for the other on several occasions.

The big question of what happens when Ronaldo and Christian Vieri come back is not as pertinent as it once seemed. A fit-again Vieri - latest reports say he will be available in November - would see Hakan benched, not Keane. As for Ronaldo, Inter have discounted having him back for any part of the coming season.

Recoba can play in the "hole" behind a two-striker front line, leaving Keane to partner Vieri up front. Keane's exploits thus far may well have temporarily won himself the coveted status of titolare - first-teamer. But there is competition aplenty from the new boys Colombo and Paralta.

Sources close to the player admit that he has felt overwhelmed by the massive demands placed on him by the all-enveloping Italian club culture, not just by the more rigorous training regime. With the Serie A season about to start, and a stern test next Saturday, the friendly young lad from Dublin with the ready smile is about to find that things from here on in are serious.

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