Ferguson cuts Keane legacy to 120 words

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The Independent Football

For those Manchester United fans who expect a homage from Sir Alex Ferguson to Roy Keane's 12-year contribution to the establishment of their club's pre-eminence, page five of tonight's match-day programme may prove a disappointment. It is in his programme notes that the Scot likes to communicate directly with supporters, spared what he believes is the agenda of a hostile media, free to praise and condemn in his own words.

The life and times of Keane - his leadership, his longevity, his part in 16 trophies - are afforded a mere 120 of Ferguson's words before the United manager breaks off abruptly into the need to concentrate upon the visit of Villarreal in the Champions' League tonight.

It is a breathtaking dismissal of a player who has done more than any other to guarantee Ferguson's legacy as one of the greatest managers in the history of football. Ferguson may have spoken yesterday about the "horrible" task of dispensing with long-serving players for the good of the club, but he was unprepared to go any further in his discussion of Keane. "I've said it and that's all you're going to get from me," he responded to one last enquiry. "Good try."

The United manager and his captain may not have agreed on much in the dark days of the last two months, but on one of the few occasions that he referred to his captain by name, Ferguson said blithely that "Roy would be the first to agree we must all focus on tonight's match". And with those words, the past was consigned to irrelevance. It was the immediate future that concerned Ferguson yesterday, and for United in the Champions' League at least it is that which looks distinctly perilous.

In their first home match without Keane, should United lose tonight, and Lille beat Benfica in the other Group D match, Ferguson will find his side out at the group stages for the first time since 1994. In their traditionally conservative financial past, United have only budgeted to reach the group stages. With the £540m debt that hangs over them, it is the extra profits from advancement in the Champions' League that offers the chance to make the payments on those borrowings. An exit at this stage would also affect next season's share of television earnings.

There will be a return for Gary Neville, who is expected to start for the first time in three months, and for the La Liga side their two key players, the former United striker Diego Forlan and the Argentinian international Juan Roman Riquelme, are expected to be out through injury. Nevertheless, without Keane, even Ferguson was prepared to concede that his team did not have "enough experience" in its ranks.

While admitting that was a handicap, he talked about the "incredible ability" of the young players at his disposal. And he called upon the supporters to lend their backing to the new side, and the young players upon whom their hopes rest, invoking the spirit of the 1958 FA Cup final team who, just months after the Munich air disaster, went to Wembley with a phoenix on their shirts "because this club rises again".

He also talked about the rather less mythologised 1-0 defeat of Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round on 7 January 1990 - "when everyone was writing about my demise" - which set the stage for Ferguson's first trophy and the building of his empire.

"We had that many injuries that day that no one in this room could remember the team that played, but the fans weren't injured and they made sure we won that game," Ferguson said. "That is the kind of fans we have got. They will rise to every challenge and they will do that again."

It was telling that now Keane has gone Ferguson did not name a single one of those young players at the top of his list for those who will succeed to the captaincy. Though Neville and Ryan Giggs will be considered in the future, Ruud van Nistelrooy will continue in the role tonight. Ferguson will expect his Old Trafford community to respond appropriately and respect their club's history, or at least the parts of it their manager cares to recall.

Manchester United (probable, 4-4-2): Van der Sar; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea; Fletcher, Smith, Scholes, Ronaldo; Rooney, Van Nistelrooy.

Villarreal (probable, 4-2-3-1): Viera; Kromkamp, Rodriguez, Pena, Arruabarrena; Josico, Senna; Roger, Sorin, Jose Mari; Figueroa.

Referee: M De Santis (Italy).