Roy Keane could be yet be a significant psychological figure in Manchester United's challenge for a second Champions' League title, though his influence will be confined to the touchline for at least the next month. On Wednesday night at Old Trafford, with a place in the semi-finals of the Champions' League within their grasp, the United players will be asked to cast their minds back three years to a night of high drama in Turin.
"Roy got us to the finals then," Alex Ferguson recalled last week. "It was his performance which was the most influential in us beating Juventus. Yet Roy was booked after 17 minutes and played for over an hour knowing he couldn't play in the final. There's a certain cause for us to get to the final this time. We want to get there for Roy Keane."
The long-term hope is that the Irishman will recover from a torn hamstring in time for the final at Hampden Park in May. Before then, United have to finish the task so expertly begun with the 2-0 defeat of Deportivo la Coruña in Spain last Tuesday and, potentially, quell the European resurgence of a more familiar foe, if Liverpool can protect their slender lead against Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. Ferguson would not even contemplate the thought of a place in the Champions' League final resting on one of the most ferocious domestic rivalries in world football. Barcelona v Real Madrid, Liverpool v Manchester United. Though both those Spanish sides will have to come from behind in the second legs, surely the footballing gods could not resist the delivery of such a tempting line-up for the semi-finals.
The injury to Keane blighted the night on which United conclusively laid out their European credentials for inspection. The defeat of Deportivo was, said Ferguson, the team's most impressive display in Europe since that night in Turin, a span which includes winning the crown in Barcelona. It was also a personal triumph for the manager. His expensive reshaping of the side was designed for just such a challenge and, though Juan Sebastian Veron was still recovering from an Achilles tendon injury, the use of Ryan Giggs in a withdrawn role behind Ruud van Nistelrooy and the deployment of Nicky Butt, Keane and, on the left, Paul Scholes gloriously vindicated Ferguson's quest for tactical balance after the sobering tutorials administered by Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in the past two seasons.
"They expected us to attack," said Ferguson. "That was why their manager wanted us and not Liverpool, because he knew we would attack them. But I think we surprised both the manager and the team because we were really decisive, really disciplined and controlled. I had wanted to play Giggs in that withdrawn role against Bayern in the group phase, but he was injured on the night before the game. If you can get his pace on to their defenders, no midfielder will get back on to him. It was just a pity that he didn't finish it off. We might come to regret that, you never know."
Had Giggs, whose incisive running from midfield exposed the old legs at the heart of the Spaniards' defence, scored from two straightforward chances deep into the second half, there would be no doubt flickering through his manager's mind. An early goal from Deportivo might yet revive the tie, but, in the absence of the biggest cog in the United engine room, damage limitation is the more pressing concern. Without quite putting it so bluntly, Ferguson needs some of his most senior players to fill the chasm in drive and spirit left by Keane's ill-timed discomfort. One by one, Ferguson nominated his candidates for leadership, like an episode of Survivor.
Giggs, who will inherit the captain's armband: "He's the longest-serving player, that's the main reason he'll be captain. The other reason is that he's respected by that group of players who broke with him at the same time. He's a lovely lad, a top man." Or the quietly spoken Laurent Blanc, whose influence on the team has grown throughout the season: "He's absolutely respected in the dressing room for what he's achieved. His English is not great, but he just says little things to players that register. That's where his influence comes. Sometimes in the maelstrom of a game, he'll bring the ball down, move to the side and give a wee pass without the flicker of an eyelid. He's just got the presence."
Yet the player who will shoulder the heaviest responsibility is one of the least celebrated members of the tribe. Like Scholes, Butt takes anonymity to the point of religious fervour, but his subjugation of Juan Valeron on Tuesday was indisputably the key battle won for United. Butt is that precious figure, the player who knows his limitations and is happy to play within them.
"He's matured now," added Ferguson. "I thought he was our star man the other night. Valeron was superb against us at Old Trafford last time, so if Nicky can do that again he will go a long way to establishing our authority in the tie. He has got the mental parts right this season in that when I do leave him out, he knows he's going to come back into the side at some point to play a role. He was an integral part of our midfield with Keane when I rested David Beckham. He's played a great part in our season and he will play a further part.
"No one can minimise the influence of Roy Keane – he's the biggest influence on the team, there's no question of that. But we can't all of a sudden shout up into the stand for help off Roy Keane. We didn't in Barcelona when we won the Champions' League and we won't now. But players emerge because of that, which is why I'm making the point about Nicky Butt. He could be our most important player now."
There is equally little question about Ferguson's return to front-line duty. Indeed, so swiftly has he reinstalled that old sense of hunger in the dressing room that the mere thought of finding a successor now seems no more than a distant and rather madcap memory.
"It would have been a loss if, next year, I'd not have been able to experience those sorts of nights," the United manager reflected. "There have been some inexplicable results this season. We've lost eight games in the League and we've not done that for 10 years, we've had two5-3 results in London, scored more goals away from home than at Old Trafford. It's been one of those strange seasons. But I'm happy with the dressing room. It smells right." No one in football knows the scent of success more acutely.Reuse content