Keane accepts blame and raises the stakes for Rangers showdown

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The Independent Online

As a proud son of Govan, Sir Alex Ferguson would not usually be pleased to hear that Rangers had conceded a late equaliser but the Manchester United manager would be grateful for the lapse which gave Panathinaikos their leveller on Wednesday night.

Without Pantelis Konstantinidis' intervention two minutes from time, the Scottish champions would be leading Group E by three points, rather than one, leaving United no margin for error when another round of the Battle of Britain opens in Glasgow later this month.

Ferguson always thought the make-up of the group, with Stuttgart as the dark horses and Rangers as the wild card, might complicate United's usually smooth passage through the group stages. Panathinaikos, who are nominally the second seeds, look the weakest of the four, especially away from Athens.

Usually, Ferguson can rely on Manchester United's dominance at home to see the club safe in the early stages of the Champions' League but maybe not this time. Rangers could be inspired when they run out at Old Trafford on 4 November just as Celtic were at Anfield in last season's Uefa Cup while if any team looks equipped to keep United at bay on their own turf it is Felix Magath's young, highly drilled squad. This year, the calculations may have to be revised. Victory at Ibrox may be a necessity rather than a luxury.

As so often, the manager's comments that Manchester United had defended "terribly" - at least as badly as they had in losing last season's quarter-final 3-1 in Madrid - were backed up by his captain. "We played poorly," said Roy Keane. "Give them credit, they are a young side but, looking at the game, you'd have thought they were the ones with all the European experience the way they played. They soaked up the pressure, hit us on the break, and we gave two bad goals away.

"We have been down this road before and we are going to accept the criticism. We need to knock Rangers down and push ourselves back up. It was going to be important anyway in Scotland but it is even more so now."

Defence was not United's only area of weakness by the banks of Neckar. The sight of Phil Neville dawdling on the ball before being amateurishly dispossessed gave further ammunition to those who believe that however effective he is as a midfielder in the Premiership, he lacks sufficient quality for the Champions' League.

Far too frequently, the ball was simply given away in midfield. They had done the same against Panathinaikos, in a display which Peter Schmeichel, watching from the stands, considered unnecessarily sloppy, although the Greeks lacked the self-belief to punish it.

Stuttgart had no such inhibitions and for the first time this season it was possible to argue that Manchester United missed the talents of David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron. Their greatest threat, especially in the opening period of the first half which they controlled fairly comfortably, came from crosses, supplied by either Ryan Giggs or Gary Neville. Beckham's crosses and free-kicks are of a far higher calibre as Veron's passing so often was on big European nights.

On Wednesday evening it was Cristiano Ronaldo, rather than Beckham, who wore the No 7 shirt and it was not a first Champions' League start to remember, even without what Stuttgart thought was a dive to win United's penalty. It is easy to forget amid the hype that the teenager is very raw and while the step-overs and flashes of pace might unsettle a Bolton or a Charlton they would not intimidate the tightest defence in Germany.

* The Paris St-Germain coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, has hinted that he may move for Manchester United's goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, when the transfer window reopens in January.

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