The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Time to worry about Keane

Roy Keane, Manchester United’s first line of defiance, Tuesday described the task of staying in this season’s Champions League as “the biggest challenge this team will ever face”. Judging by his own anonymity in Tuesday’s 1-3 quarter final first-leg defeat at Real Madrid, Keane himself faces the biggest challenge of his professional life.

The Irishman’s career has been rescued by the hands of surgeons before but the sands of time, now fully exposing the ravages of mobility-restricting injuries to hip and knee, are not sparing him. A great player is in decline. It is both sad and true, like discovering rust accruing on a beloved steel monument.

Now is the time to question Keane’s residual importance to a club he has served so well. Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira has comfortably assumed Keane’s mantle as the most influential central midfielder in the land. Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard eclipsed Keane in the Worthington Cup final. In the Bernabeu, Claude Makelele and Flavio Conceicao pushed Keane to the periphery of the action, so leaving Nicky Butt to fight the fires lit by Zinedine Zidane, Raul and Luis Figo.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s loyalty to Keane is not in question but an ambitious manager, who has shown no mercy when his teams need rebuilding, knows that John O’Shea, a youngster who has excelled across the back four, has the versatility to function in the engine-room. O’Shea’s obvious class in terms of touch, confidence and decent speed demands he starts soon.

United have the money to strengthen and Ferguson will not be the only eminent European coach looking at the under-paid, over-achievers in Ajax’s ranks this summer. United’s manager must also introduce some pace because only Ryan Giggs of his front six can outstrip opponents. Craig Bellamy, Newcastle United’s whippet of a support-striker, would jump at the chance.

The close-season promises much at Old Trafford. If Ferguson’s racing friends do launch their anticipated take-over, the Scot’s position will acquire even greater underpinning. One reality burns through all the clouds of doubt: a bad night in Madrid does not mean England’s most famous club should be written out of future scripts.

United will return, probably not effectively enough against Real to rescue their European dream, possibly not even in the race for the Premiership title against Arsenal, but they will stride the peaks again. Their powers of revival are well-established, particularly with the phenomenon that is Ferguson driving them on.

As for the charge against Ferguson for his nonsensical “fix” comments, anyone who understands this obstinate, fascinating man knows he will be unperturbed by bureaucratic tick-offs.Tuesday night was an education, but the lesson of United has always been that they will be back. With or without Keane remains to be seen.

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