Keane holds key to United challenge in Leverkusen

Captain believes history can repeat itself in semi-final second leg against often brittle Bundesliga leaders
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The Independent Online

When Manchester United were hurtling through the most unlikely scenarios to take the treble, Sir Alex Ferguson would always complain that his team had an ingrained habit of making things hard for themselves.

It is one they have not lost. Ferguson smiled indulgently when asked if Wednesday's breathless 2-2 draw with Bayer Leverkusen meant they had to win in Germany. He was not budgeting for a 3-3 result, he said, although with this Manchester United side you never know.

Without Gary Neville, whose economical displays either at right-back or alongside Laurent Blanc have underpinned United's Champions' League campaign, winning their first game in Germany since the long-forgotten Vorwärts were disposed of in 1965 will be hard but not, as some pessimists believe, out of reach.

The presence of Roy Keane, the man in whom Ferguson puts so much faith, will be vital in the BayArena on Tuesday. At Old Trafford, the Leverkusen midfield, led impressively by Michael Ballack, were decisively superior and, despite the welter of compliments his manager paid Nicky Butt in the run-up to this European Cup semi-final, he is no kind of replacement for Keane and nor, incidentally, was Juan Sebastian Veron.

The hamstring injury their captain sustained during United's 2-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruña, which was easily their most impressive performance in Europe this season, should have made him doubtful even for the final in Glasgow on 15 May. "I was always positive and deep down I thought I might get back a little quicker," he smiled when asked about the speed of his return.

Ferguson admitted that his decision to send Keane on with a few moments remaining was largely symbolic and designed to inspire the rest of his faltering team, although he naturally put in at least one outstanding defensive tackle. On Tuesday, Keane will need to be as inspired and inspiring as he was in the Stadio delle Alpi in the 1999 semi-final when United, having been held to a 1-1 draw by Juventus at Old Trafford, went two down in the first quarter of an hour and somehow recovered to win 3-2.

"Maybe what happened in Turin will count a little bit; it's the same type of scenario," Keane reflected. "Against Juventus we were fairly outplayed at Old Trafford but managed to get a draw and then went over there and won. This will be a test of character for the lads; there is not much between the sides and whoever has a touch of luck will probably go through.

"We are disappointed with the result – for a semi-final it was a very open match – and that we conceded two away goals. Give Leverkusen credit, they played very openly but that's the way we play as well; it should be a great game over in Germany."

Throughout their run to the semi-finals, Leverkusen have probably not been given sufficient credit. Should their home form hold steady – they have won six out of eight European matches at the BayArena – they will have knocked out Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. They have lost five times in the Champions' League this season, which is a lot, but have generally won the matches that mattered.

As Klaus Toppmöller pointed out, they ought to have secured victory on Wednesday. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer's goal was horribly deflected while the Leverkusen coach accused Ruud van Nistelrooy of diving to win the penalty for United's second.

For his part, Ferguson took a dim view of the way Toppmöller's team celebrated after the final whistle and suggested that it might be very different if United took the lead in the second leg: "And everyone knows we will score."

In Germany, Leverkusen are regarded as a club which bottles big matches; most famously two years ago when, needing only a draw against a dreadful Unterhaching side to clinch their first title, they lost and allowed Bayern Munich, who were three points adrift going into the final game, to overhaul them at the very death.

The Bayern Munich keeper, Oliver Kahn, repeated the accusation at the weekend after a defeat by Werder Bremen reduced Leverkusen's lead at the top of the Bundesliga to two points with two matches remaining and Toppmöller admitted that Saturday's game with Nuremberg will weigh more heavily on his mind than the second leg with United. Losing in the semi-finals of the European Cup would be acceptable to Leverkusen fans: but not blowing another Bundesliga title.

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