Keane stays calm as the midfield qualms persist

The battle of Manchester: United's talisman refuses to panic over inconsistency as City look to exploit the flaws
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The Independent Football

Two faces of Roy Keane. The first, distorted with something between annoyance and anger, was visible at Fratton Park, Portsmouth, last Saturday just after the referee's whistle confirmed Manchester United's 2-0 defeat in a game they had for the most part dominated. Keane, a second-half substitute, could not wait to get off the pitch, shaking his head in disbelief at the combination of defensive lapses and spurned goalscoring opportunities that had set his team back again just as they seemed to have taken a giant step forward six days earlier by beating Arsenal. "We missed too many chances and gave away two bad goals," he would say later. "That is a recipe for disaster at this level."

Wednesday night at Old Trafford and, if not exactly wreathed in smiles, the Keane countenance was as mellow as the band of the same name. In their Champions' League game against Sparta Prague, United almost matched Saturday's 18 shots on goal and this time scored from four of them, the difference, of course, being the finishing of the returning Ruud van Nistelrooy. In a wildly entertaining game reminiscent of the club's best European traditions, it was like going back to basics, with the three Rs - Ruud, Rooney and Ronaldo - looking, as Rio Ferdinand put it, "a lot better, the best they've played since they've been together".

"With the players and the talent we've got," said Keane, "we all thought it was just a matter of time before we scored three or four in a match." Neutrals were beginning to wonder, 11 goals in 11 Premiership games being about one-third of Arsenal's total and fewer than a dozen other teams - including this afternoon's opponents, Manchester City - had managed, while Van Nistelrooy had not scored from open play. The consolations for City are firstly that the Dutchman will not be available today, his suspension from such a fixture making the challenge on Ashley Cole a fortnight ago all the more ridiculous; and secondly that Sparta were granted sufficient space on Wednesday for 20 shots themselves.

"Obviously, Ruud's suspended, but you can't rely on one player," Keane insisted. "We've got some other outstanding players who can come in, with the strikers we've bought. People might think it's an excuse, but it takes time for players to settle in. Hopefully, it won't be too long. I've been quite relaxed about it, looking at the players, the staff and the manager we've got. We're focused on winning football matches." Then a real Keanoism: "People will judge us by our actions, not our intentions."

What of his own actions this season in a central-midfield area that has been criticised as deficient in protection for the defence and creativity for the attack? "We know as a team we've been inconsistent, you don't need to be experts to see that. So we've got to keep going. If you look at the team as a whole, there's lots of players who can play better, including myself. When there's more playing well, obviously it will help the team, but we're focused and gearing up for Sunday. We're not panicking yet."

A hint of a grin plays around his lips with that last sentence, quickly replaced by the more familiar gritty determination as the subject of the championship chase comes up.

Twelve points down on Chelsea and 10 on champions Arsenal after yesterday's games, are United out of the running? "There'd be no point turning up, would there? We've been in the position where we've had leads, and it's not over until you get that medal in your hand. We'll keep going, and if the players are determined, we'll keep hanging in there."

Keane has been remarkably good-humoured, even to the extent of the self-mocking suggestion, "Maybe I need to lighten up". But it is unwise to get too familiar, as is made clear when someone asks if derby games still carry an extra edge. "D'you really need to ask that?" End of conversation. Perhaps it was straying too close to the unmentionable topic of Keane's vengeful assault on Alf Inge Haaland that disfigured the game at Old Trafford, as well as the City player's knee, three years ago.

Lightening up or not, he has generally been a more composed figure over the past year or so; still a reluctant loser, and topping United's lists for passes and tackles again last season, but rarely a scorer these days (his 50th goal for the club has eluded him for exactly 12 months) and forced to accept that at 33 there may not be too many more hoorahs.

The captain's wild shooting against Sparta, combined with Paul Scholes's extraordinary miss from a couple of yards and Cristiano Ronaldo's erratic finishing, was an illustration of how scoring strikes from midfield have been almost totally absent this season: none of those players, Darren Fletcher, Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Phil Neville or John O'Shea, have a goal to their name.

Ryan Giggs does, and ought to earn a call-up today at Liam Miller's expense. But Louis Saha has fired blanks in his seven appearances this season, which may prompt Sir Alex Ferguson to leave him on the substitutes' bench again and recall Alan Smith as Van Nistelrooy's replacement, better suited as he is to the physical nature of a derby fixture.

Saha, who began his United career last January after the acrimonious transfer from Fulham by scoring three times in two games, claims to be philosophical about the situation, despite Wayne Rooney's arrival ahead of schedule two months ago, representing a clear threat to his prospects.

"It's a difficult time, but I have to be strong and keep working hard," he said on Wednesday. "I've not really been through a period like this before but I'm just getting back from injury and I'm happy to be a part of it. I'm fully confident I can do a good job for United."

If City prove unusually resilient this afternoon, Saha's pace might be the quality required to unhinge Sylvain Distin and, especially, Richard Dunne. Ferguson, who yesterday celebrated 18 years at United, would only say: "The focus is on our strikers, there has to be better concentration in their finishing. We had 18 shots at Portsmouth and didn't score. We don't accept that. Yet in training their finishing is terrific. We'd love to have Ruud out there against City but I'll still be playing good strikers. It might be the day one of them gets a hat-trick."

All the evidence of last season's three meetings between the teams, which finished 8-7 to United on aggregate, is that goals will fly in; and the hope is that Old Trafford will see the acceptable face of captain Keane.