Keane returns to join United push for form of yesteryear

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The Independent Online

The question was asked and you sat back and waited for the explosion. What did Roy Keane make of a season that has seen Manchester United drift into seventh place in the Premiership, nine points behind Arsenal and Chelsea?

The question was asked and you sat back and waited for the explosion. What did Roy Keane make of a season that has seen Manchester United drift into seventh place in the Premiership, nine points behind Arsenal and Chelsea?

The Manchester United captain, whose searing honesty even in good times is notorious, smiled: "Believe it or not, I'm quite relaxed about it. I have every confidence that come the end of the season we will be there or thereabouts. Don't get me wrong, it's not ideal but I'd rather be this far behind now than in February or March."

A combination of cracked ribs, squad rotation and flu has meant Keane has not played since the goalless draw at Birmingham in mid-October and he was scathing about his team's display at Portsmouth on Saturday. "The combination of missing chances and giving bad goals away is a recipe for disaster." However, he added: "I look around, see the manager, the staff and the players we have and I know we will be OK. You can analyse the game all you like but, if you keep missing chances the way we've been missing them, then you suffer. But we have always been a team that scores plenty of goals and that will come back."

Keane did not disagree when asked if this was the most talented collection of individuals he had worked with in his 11 years at Old Trafford before adding darkly: "Individual talent counts for nothing; it's what you do as a team that's important."

Europe, in contrast to the Premiership, offers more reassuring horizons. Manchester United may have been stifled by Sparta Prague in the Toyota Stadium and been extremely fortunate to escape from Lyon with a 2-2 draw but, as Fenerbahce discovered, they remain dangerous at Old Trafford, where they have not lost in three years of Champions' League football. If tonight's encounter with Sparta in Manchester and the return with Lyon go to form, United should have qualified from Group D well before the journey to Istanbul to face Fenerbahce.

Sparta's coach, Frantisek Straka, commented that he would repeat his tactics from last month's game; employ five across the centre and hope to keep Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy at bay. United's own dreary play allowed them to succeed in Prague but this kind of strategy rarely works at Old Trafford, because, generally, Manchester United score. However, they proved so wasteful at Fratton Park that Sir Alex Ferguson joked that he would fancy his chances of getting a game himself.

"Our home record is very good; we just don't need to miss as many chances as we did on Saturday," remarked the United manager. "Strikers are not unbreakable in terms of confidence, but winning football games certainly helps."

Certainly, Ferguson confessed that there has been a falling-off in Rooney's play since his astonishing debut against Fenerbahce in September. "You find at first that adrenalin keeps you going. It was the same with Rio Ferdinand when he made his comeback; he'd been out for eight months and he felt the same thing. Then, there was a levelling out of his performances, his timing and pace suffered, tiredness crept in. But that comes back, it always does."

Manchester United: (probable 4-4-2) Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Ronaldo, Scholes, Keane, Giggs; Rooney, Van Nistelrooy.

Sparta Prague: (probable 4-5-1) Blazek; Pergl, Homola, Kovac, Petras; Poborsky, Sivok, Zelenka, Vorisek, Urbanek; Jun.

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