James Lawton: So near yet so far for legend in the making

Rooney's early bite conveyed the sense that he could do anything
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The Independent Football

The big banner proclaimed "Keane 1993-2005 Red Legend". But fables are as brittle in football as most other places, as is even the hardest-won affection on the terraces. Thus it was here last night that the ritual chants of "Keano, Keano," died in thousands of throats at the first blaze of virtuosity from Wayne Rooney.

Had the new hero crowned a breathtaking foray in the opening exchanges, Keane would have been consigned to United history in not much more than a nanosecond.

The truth, of course, is that Keane had been taking a slower but quite relentless march to the margins of the club he drove on for more than a decade, long before last Friday's eruption with his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. The certainty of this created surely the only muted salute to the departed Irishman.

As United fought for their place in Europe with increasing desperation, Keane's heirs had already been absolved the heaviest of responsibilities by their manager. Ferguson said that for quite some time post-Keane United would have a shortfall of experience, almost certainly too great a one to permit the responsibility of success in the Champions' League this season. But before the January transfer window, Ferguson's obligation is to work with what is left of his resources and though survival in Europe was crucial to the morale of the place he could not really complain about last night's work.

Though Villarreal are a team without great distinctions, especially in the absence of their exquisite Argentinian playmaker Juan Riquelme, they play a technical game of high confidence.

Against such opposition the pressure for United to execute sweetly was immense, especially with those early cries for Keano swirling in the air. It was a problem that Rooney failed to negotiate only by the most agonising of margins.

His early bite conveyed the sense that he could do almost anything he wanted and might have brought two early goals that would have brought a flood of warmth to the great stadium made chilly by doubts about the future. Early in the second half he moved exquisitely again to set up substitute Park Ji-Sung, but once more United were denied by the cruellest of fractions.

At half-time Ferguson said that patience was required, both in the game and also the season, he implied. The point was legitimate in that United had played with a sharpness and a vigour that had lacked even a hint of good fortune. However, if patience can be a virtue, it can also be a fault when the stakes are as high as they became in the dwindling moments of the match. What United required, more intently than for several years in their history, was something extraordinary, something to turn the sky over Old Trafford a bright red once again.

Certainly there was no lack of effort as Gary Neville, a leading candidate to take over the captaincy, ended his long absence through injury. Neville's drive, his refusal to accept that United's time in the sun has passed, was an important ingredient as United fought so hard to rescue something of their season.

Nothing, though, could intrude on the central hope of United these days. It is that Rooney, the prodigy, finds something close to the best in talent. With four minutes left it seemed such a climactic moment might have arrived. He swivelled on the edge of the box and lined up his shot with the deadly eye of an assassin which has already made him a player of such unlimited possibilities. The shot seemed perfect but it rose fractionally above the bar. That would have been a tumultuous statement that the last of United's ambitions had not departed with the turbulent Irishman.

As it was, Ferguson's cry for patience had been stretched another desperate notch. However as United hung on to the cliff edge of European football, neither he nor the fans could complain that the team had lost any understanding of the pressure of the moment.

They attacked with everything they had in the closing seconds and that, of course, brought its own anxiety as the Spanish club moved into the space inviting counter-attack.

There was no alternative to such full-blooded action however. United were fighting for their lives and it seemed that the last chance came with a free-kick deep into added time.

Van Nistelrooy's effort slid off a Spanish body for a corner, which Rooney took with only a slightly perceptible slump of the shoulders. If United were to fail though it was not for any reason that might provoke the sneers or the anger of their former captain and arch-critic. Keane has been unforgiving in his criticism, his belief that the team had lost the will to fight but that complaint did not hold good last night. United failed. But it was the kind of setback that can happen to any team at any time. This one did not go down easily.

It meant that they have to fight again in Lisbon against their old foe Benfica to stay in Europe. Their chances should not be dismissed.