Field marshal Keane picks up the baton and wields it

Guy Hodgson witnesses United's intense captain keep his cool in the heat of battle
Click to follow
The Independent Football

For the first time in the afternoon Roy Keane's gesture was restrained: just a simple shake of the fist and a quiet smile. Manchester United were through to their 16th FA Cup final, and the man who embodies the club's desire would have been more animated if his each-way bet had finished fourth in the Grand National.

For the first time in the afternoon Roy Keane's gesture was restrained: just a simple shake of the fist and a quiet smile. Manchester United were through to their 16th FA Cup final, and the man who embodies the club's desire would have been more animated if his each-way bet had finished fourth in the Grand National.

An ecstatic Gary Neville was carried high, the injured Ruud van Nistelrooy's sore knee was forgotten as the besuited Dutchman cavorted with his muddied team-mates, but Keane just walked slowly off the pitch, calmly enjoying his colleagues' excitement. Job done.

Yet seconds before, Villa Park had been ringing with his name. Not for a goal or a defence-splitting pass but for a typical piece of the 32-year-old Keane's ageing obduracy. Arsenal, with more forwards on the pitch than England's rugby team, had a corner and, as Darren Fletcher's clearance arced invitingly towards the area's edge, the vision of an equaliser flashed into the mind.

Into Keane's senses, too, because the United captain forgot a knock that had reduced him to a limp and sprinted to meet the threat. The tackle was like a bulldozer meeting a daisy, and moments later he was charging upfield with such intent Sol Campbell was forced into a foul. The danger had been stamped on.

At the same time Patrick Vieira was nagging referee Graham Barber and, like the hundred complaints before it, it got him nowhere. Here was this FA Cup semi-final caught in a nutshell: the Arsenal captain talking himself into a state of impotence, his United counterpart, no stranger to the moan himself, effective to the end. Neither player had been able to gain access to their fullest powers, but it was Keane who was the more effective.

There had been a difference, too, in the tunnel as the teams waited to make their entrance. Last Sunday, at Highbury, Keane's eyes spoke of a will of almost frightening intensity. Yesterday he looked wholly at ease, chatting amiably with Barber then paternally guiding a young mascot on to the pitch. United have never lost a semi-final at Villa Park, and Keane looked comfortable that the record would not be challenged.

Whether the inner man still felt confident three minutes into the tie is debatable, because Arsenal went for the quick kill and, if Wes Brown had not headed off the line from Dennis Bergkamp, Edu been a fraction lower with his chip that hit the bar or Roy Carroll not saved wondrously from Kolo Touré, they would have got it. Instead it marked the nearest the Gunners came to a hit.

Brown used his clearance as a springboard to be man of the match, while in front of him Keane, his arms moving like an Aintree tick-tack man, directed operations. Arsenal could argue that they were unlucky to lose their first FA Cup tie since the final of 2001, but in terms of tactics they were slaughtered.

Keane, his field marshal's baton brandished, patrolled in front of his much-maligned back four while Fletcher and Paul Scholes provided the energy to close doors in front of him. There was no way through the middle for Arsenal, but Arsène Wenger seemed not to notice it and Vieira, Edu and Freddie Ljungberg spent a painful afternoon banging their heads against the United wall. They might have opted for the flanks, as United did so effectively with Ronaldo, but with the disappointing Robert Pires intent on drifting inwards, that choice was removed from them.

Pires missed the chance of the game with a woeful header and became involved in several spats that culminated in Keane dumping him on his backside with a whack round the kegs that ought to have gained the Irishman a caution. Pires was withdrawn in more ways than one while Keane, his weekly brush with the law over, got stronger as he realised there was no need for the reckless.

Instead it was Arsenal, much lauded by the purists, who revealed their less lovely side, Bergkamp trying a Pires-type con when he pushed a foot out to look as though he had been felled by John O'Shea. Then Vieira, a warrior when he wants to be, collapsed in a heap with a laughable dive after a run towards the centre of United's area. Well, John Motson and Mark Lawrenson laughed at it, which said more than any words could.

Keane had the last laugh, too, only once being bettered by Vieira's younger limbs when the Frenchman won a header in first-half injury time that clipped a post. With that Arsenal's chance had gone, and if there were trebles yesterday evening, they were in the United supporters' drinks orders.

The man in the No 16 shirt, whom his detractors believe merits 666, had won one battle, and now another potential confrontation looms in Cardiff on 22 May: Keane versus Mick McCarthy.

Comments