Absence of bawling Keane proves the crucial factor

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The Independent Football

The BBC yesterday announced the title of the best song to listen to when you are down. It was typically by The Smiths, perhaps Manchester's greatest band, and called "It's Over".

The BBC yesterday announced the title of the best song to listen to when you are down. It was typically by The Smiths, perhaps Manchester's greatest band, and called "It's Over".

It is over for Manchester United. The Premiership is all but gone, the might of Arsenal stand in the path of the FA Cup and, for the first time since 1996, they have failed to reach the quarter-finals of the European Cup.

As United went out following last night's draw here with Porto, you felt most strongly for Roy Keane, denied a European Cup winners' medal five years ago and who may never now reach a final. His absence proved as great an impediment as anyone here feared.

In 1997 Porto had come to Old Trafford for a European Cup quarter-final and were destroyed 4-0 in a display Sir Alex Ferguson rated "the most emphatic in Europe I have known as manager". Keane was absent then, but United had Eric Cantona to wear the armband. Now Keane's replacement was another Eric, Djemba-Djemba, who had not played a match since 1 November and who did not make the second half. Cristiano Ronaldo, another of those whom Ferguson bought to replace David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron, came on for a few moments and was then taken off on a stretcher.

United were lucky to win the European Cup under Ferguson and they have shown no sign of repeating the feat. In the five years which followed the triumph of Barcelona, they have won only one knock-out game. Although Ferguson said yesterday that they "had not done too much wrong", Keane would beg to differ.

You could point to the quarter-final defeat by Bayern Munich in 2001 when, in Keane's words, "United talked big but did not deliver", or the semi-final reverse in Leverkusen the following year; when the Irishman noted one of his team-mates shaking with fear during the Uefa anthem. Ferguson may pretend that scoring five times against Real Madrid was an achievement, but most of those were scored by Beckham when the game was lost. Now, he might point to Paul Scholes' disallowed goal, but it would be in vain.

It would be easy to lay the blame for this exit at the door of a makeshift defence. Generally, they performed as well as could be expected and, in the case of Gary Neville, better.

Had Jose Mourinho's team attacked from the off, Porto might have won rather more comfortably than they did. Only after falling behind did they pass the ball as they had done in the Dragao Stadium, where they ought to have achieved a crushing victory. As it turned out, United did not escape punishment in Portugal, they merely delayed the execution.

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