Keane's rage tracks United troubles

Tim Rich
Friday 27 February 2004 01:00

After Manchester United have lost, Roy Keane will usually be one of the few players to talk to journalists, who appreciate his honesty and reluctance to hide behind cliches. But not this time.

The Irishman was last out of the away dressing room at the Dragao stadium, a structure that resembles a cross between the Reebok at Bolton and the City of Manchester Stadium but which proved a far more intimidating venue than either. Keane did not stop and the fact he had been shown the 11th red card of his career meant few expected him to.

Inwardly, he would have been experiencing an inner fury known only to a few. A 2-1 defeat, even by a side as slick as Porto, was manageable. It is 12 games since Manchester United failed to score in a Champions' League fixture at Old Trafford and 16 since they lost one, to Deportivo La Coruña in October 2001. A 1-0 or 2-0 victory is well within their compass, even for a club which seems to be stumbling through its fixtures, but that equation has been horribly muddied by the loss of their captain for the second leg.

There is a pattern to Keane's dismissals. The straight red cards have tended to come in the final throes of games in which Manchester United have played poorly. There were a few minutes remaining when he ran into the Porto keeper, Vitor Baia, and seconds were left when he elbowed Jason McAteer at Sunderland and when he threw a punch at Alan Shearer. Two of those matches were lost, one dismally drawn. His first straight red, for stamping on Gareth Southgate in the 1995 FA Cup semi-final, was an exception; it was 10 minutes into the second half and United beat Crystal Palace comfortably.

After the McAteer incident Keane disappeared for months to undergo a hip operation, and after throwing the ball and the punch at Shearer in the final moments of a 4-3 defeat at St James' Park, he told his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, he would be quitting football. Ferguson talked him round and Keane agreed it would be a "slap in the face" to leave when United were struggling. Two and a half years on they are struggling once more. Ryan Giggs loyally said that Porto "had most of the possession but did not create much", but the statistics revealed they had 21 shots to United's four.

Ferguson's 100th match in the Champions' League proved one of his most difficult. Given the absence of Rio Ferdinand and Mikaël Silvestre and the lack of form of John O'Shea and Wes Brown, his team selection was, of necessity, a balancing act. Not since November 1994 when the rule restricting foreign players forced him to drop Peter Schmeichel in favour of Gary Walsh to face Barcelona in the Nou Camp has it been quite so delicate.

Then, Manchester United were swept away to a 4-0 defeat; had Jose Mourinho been able to call upon the injured Derlei, whose goals helped Porto win last year's Uefa Cup, United might have conceded a similar deficit on Wednesday.

From the side that played Real Madrid in last season's quarter-final, Fabien Barthez, David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron have left. Rio Ferdinand has fallen victim to his own stupidity in failing to take a drugs test, Silvestre and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are injured while Keane will be suspended for the second leg. Put another way, Manchester United will be without more than £100m worth of footballers at Old Trafford on 9 March. No club, not even Real Madrid, could endure that without suffering some kind of adverse reaction.

It is impossible to say whether Beckham or Veron would have made a difference, although Ruud van Nistelrooy stated before the match that he thought United missed the England captain. What is unquestioned is that of the purchases Ferguson made in the summer of Beckham's departure only Tim Howard was considered good enough to start here.

Louis Saha, bought from Fulham for the kind of money Arsène Wenger used to buy Thierry Henry, began the match but did not finish it. Saha seemed not to know whether he was playing alongside Van Nistelrooy or in support of him and, long before his departure, he had become thoroughly anonymous.

Since Manchester United have never exactly been short of goals, buying a striker rather than a defender was a curious move, especially since Ferguson knew Ferdinand's ban was imminent. The situation called for a quality short-term signing such as bringing the 33-year-old Southgate to Old Trafford. Something similar was done three years ago when Laurent Blanc was signed. The Frenchman endured a bucketful of criticism early on but by the time he left even Keane said he had learned from him and Keane is a man who does not give cheap praise.

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