James Lawton: In the heat and heart of the final battle, Keane's leadership will give United edge

Click to follow
The Independent Football

There are so many issues surrounding today's FA Cup final an index would be useful. However, let's cut to the heart of it. This means Keane versus Vieira. Then everything becomes simple. Keane wins and, as they cling to his ageing but not yet utterly frayed coat-tails, so do Manchester United.

There are so many issues surrounding today's FA Cup final an index would be useful. However, let's cut to the heart of it. This means Keane versus Vieira. Then everything becomes simple. Keane wins and, as they cling to his ageing but not yet utterly frayed coat-tails, so do Manchester United.

Yes, we know Arsenal are in something of a revival but if they are honest they will agree it has been relatively pressure-free. It has come when the big challenges have been resolved; Bayern Munich ushered them out of Europe and Chelsea disappeared over the Premiership horizon. Then Arsenal, and Patrick Vieira, started to play again. They were recognisable as something like their old selves. Now they are back with the gut check from hell.

They have again to face United, against whom they are beginning to explore the depths of futility... one win in nine games. For a team of Arsenal's talent and imagination that isn't a bad record. It's a shocking confession which permits no easy absolution. Three Hail Marys and one Our Father just won't do. They have to meet their snarling nemesis without Thierry Henry and with Vieira in such a psychological hole against Roy Keane, that his manager, Arsène Wenger, must be considering the hiring of a block and tackle for the Millennium stadium.

All this week the debate has raged. Keane's point about Vieira's passion - and charity work - for the land of his birth, Senegal, being unsupported by his decision of many years ago to play for France was beautifully countered by the Arsenal man. Was this, wondered Vieira, coming from the warrior player who walked out on his country at the dawn of the 2002 World Cup? Yes, touché ... but Vieira was talking to some football writers. He wasn't being stared down by the Irishman. He was not, despite his great height advantage, gulping and - dare we say it - bottling as he did in the Highbury tunnel earlier this year.

The Frenchman's situation is complicated by what happened to him last summer, when he thought he was going to become the latest member of the galactico club, then discovered that Real Madrid merely saw him as a small notch up from the man they had also so crazily undervalued, the Chelsea midfield linchpin Claude Makelele.

It cannot be calculated precisely what that did to Vieira's head, or his competitive heart, but whatever it was it wasn't good. Only at times in the second half of this season has he begun to look like the player he was two or three years ago, a man of undivided concentration and masterful instincts. While the erosion of Keane's physical presence, over a run of games, has been plain enough to see, there is no doubting his capacity to rise to single occasions, and these seem to coincide to a remarkable degree with when Arsenal happen to be the opposition.

Last season a beautifully rampant Arsenal were stopped in the FA Cup by the force of Keane's leadership in the semi-final at Villa Park, and maybe also Wenger's decision not to start with Henry. Pizzagate was sordid and told us far more about the Arsenal mentality than it was comfortable to know. A few months ago, at Highbury, Keane's leadership overwhelmed Vieira's both in the tunnel and on the field. United won the match 4-2. Psychologically, it was more than a victory. It was an evisceration. Can Keane repeat today?

John Giles says yes. Giles - who won FA Cup winners' medals with both Manchester United and Leeds United and who guided the ferociously and, more often than some care to remember, beautifully effective Revie team of the Sixties and early Seventies with less overt but similarly profound influence as his compatriot Keane exerts for United - believes that the balance of power, and in terms of mental approach, hugely so, still rests with the Irishman.

According to Giles, since his own playing days - when Sir Matt Busby said his greatest mistake in football was to sell him to Leeds for less than £40,000 and Sir Alf Ramsey said his big regret in the build-up to the 1966 World Cup was that Giles hadn't been born an Englishman - there have been in English football three great midfielders of huge influence, Graeme Souness, Bryan Robson, and Keane. Gascoigne? "He was great for a little while, but he never saw the game as those other guys did. He never built up a body of work. One minute he was here with all his talent, then he was gone."

Vieira? "A few years ago you would have said he was a certainty to join that company. Now, at 28, he has quite a bit to do. The good thing is that he has time to do it. He's still in his prime. Wenger's encouragement is that Vieira has been looking a lot more like his old self in the last few weeks, but will that stand up against Keane tomorrow? I very much doubt it.

"Vieira has this week been dressing up his confrontation in the Highbury tunnel with Keane, painting it as some kind of normal exchange between 'leaders' before a big match. Don't believe that for a minute. Real leaders do it on the field; they save everything for that. Vieira didn't behave like a leader that night. He behaved like a bully, and Keane called him. Apart from the issue of Vieira picking on Gary Neville, there was, I believe, something else on the agenda. In a previous game at Highbury I heard that Vieira and a few others tried to wind up Keane before the start.

"They said things like, 'Come on, Roy, lighten up.' Keane would have hated that, all the way down to his boots. Players like Keane don't lighten up before or during a match. Often they don't afterwards, even if they have won. Souness and Robson were a bit like that. What they did on the field was everything to them."

A question for Giles involves him taking a small trip in a time machine. If he was running the United midfield today, striking telling passes, monitoring the game's rhythm, maybe sending a reckless opponent to the local X-ray department, and doing it against an Arsenal who could call on all their players from the last 40 years, who would he most like to hear was missing - Vieira or his old rival Peter Storey?

"There's no question. I'd be more relieved if Storey was out. Storey didn't speak. During a game he had the eyes of a psychopath. Of course it should be said, that unlike Keane versus Vieira, there would be a lot more man-to-man work. Storey would be told to sit on me and shut me down. I never had a moment's peace playing against him. He was branded a hatchet man, but that was simplistic. He was a hell of a player; not as creative as Vieira, by no means, but tidy on the ball to the say the least, and always tremendously aware of the state of the game."

Giles cedes a marked physical edge to a Vieira six years Keane's junior. "Vieira is a remarkable specimen physically, but in a one-off situation, and in terms of influence and leadership, I would still believe, as I'm sure Sir Alex Ferguson does, in Keane being able to get up for the job of putting it over Vieira again.

"Think about one question? While you see Keane making ruthless tackles, disputing decisions, throwing his weight around, how often do you see him getting treatment? How often do you see him sprawling on the pitch after taking a dive? Now ask the same question about Vieira? Sometimes that's all he seems to be doing.

"That may sound harsh, but we are talking about a tremendously gifted player, a man who could hardly be more physically imposing. But in a season when Arsenal cried out for his leadership, the kind that Souness gave Liverpool and any team he played for, Robson and Keane gave United, where has Vieira been? Whatever he says about his refound love for Arsenal, the hard truth is that often he has been missing."

If it is a harsh verdict from the old midfield general, it is far from a dismissal. "It would be stupid to disregard what Vieira has done in the past and what he might do in the future, because apart from anything else it would take away something from the brilliant work of Wenger... He has shown genius in recognising talent, and spotting the potential in Vieira was sheer genius. But then you also have to be honest. I have expected more from Vieira, as both a player and a leader - and it's why I think, even this far down the road, Keane is likely to be a bigger influence in the Cup final."

No doubt Keane will receive such a verdict with no more than a grunt. He is, after all, still a long way from lightening up.