Retrospective #21: Roy Keane takes on Juventus
If you ever find yourself incarcerated in an El-Salvadorian prison and forced to watch ITV’s football coverage, you will see a man in the studio. A man who seethes with contempt at the inane banality around him, a man whose icy stare at the artificially folksy repartee of Adrian Chiles could freeze magma. This man is Roy Keane, and before dedicating his life to campaigning against glove-wearing pansies and slating Alex Ferguson in the gutter press, he was actually the captain of Manchester United and — oh — what a captain he was.
As a player, Keane will be remembered for many things, like kicking Alfe-Inge Haaland’s right knee so hard it caused a career ending injury in his left one or scaring the brioche out of Patrick Vieira in the Highbury tunnel. Of course, some ‘purists’ will tell you he was nothing more than a thug, a madman who had no place in a gentleman’s game but deep-down, in places they don’t like to talk about in the comment section of the Guardian football site, they wished that they had someone like him in their side. Keane was a winner, a force of nature, a rabid, iron-clad wolverine who would rather kill his granny and sell her body as dog food than accept a 2-2 draw at Selhurst Park, a man who, if he had lived in ancient Sparta, would have been the subject of a best-selling graphic novel and blockbuster movie called ’1′.
Perhaps his finest hour was in the 1999 Champions League semi-final second leg against Juventus. It’s often overlooked now, but sandwiched between the last, and possibly greatest FA Cup semi-final replay in history (won in extra time by Ryan Giggs beating seven Arsenal players, two unused substitutes and Pat Rice before rifling a shot past David Seaman and flaunting his chest rug all over the West Midlands) and that balmy night in Barcelona where half the Bayern squad were already tucking into their celebratory bratwurst when Teddy Sheringham scuffed home the equaliser, Keane was the driving force behind what, until a famous flick off Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s leg, was considered the greatest comeback in the history of the European Football.
United had been scintillating in qualifying from the group of death that featured both Barcelona and eventual finalists Bayern and had made fairly light work of Italian giants Inter in the quarter-finals. History, however, was not on their side as they travelled to Turin. In the late 1990s, Juventus were quite the side; they’d featured in the last three Champions League finals and had beaten United three times in the previous two years. With the skill of Zinedine Zidane, the drive and energy of Edgar Davids and the movement of Filipo Inzaghi, the Italian champions had dominated Fergie’s men for much of the first leg. While a late Giggs equaliser (yes, another late goal, this is Man United) had given them a lifeline, the Reds had never won in Italy and the ‘Old Lady’ had never been knocked out of Europe in the comfort of their own rocking chair.
United couldn’t have got off to a worse start. After a scrappy first five minutes, Juve took the lead through a nicely worked corner routine that saw Pippo Inzaghi nip in at the far post to poke the ball past Peter Schmeichel. Five minutes later, their lead doubled when another Inzaghi shot took the cruelest of deflections off of the outstretched leg of Jaap Stam and looped over Schmeichel’s head. United were visibly shaken (seeing Pippo Inzaghi onside twice in the same calendar year will do that to you) and looked in danger of being humiliated.
Roy Keane, however, had other plans and immediately began to impose himself. Edgar Davids had been one of the standout performers in the first leg but Keano dominated him here, rendering the former Milli Vanilli man as effective as a celery stick at Charlie Adam’s house. The Reds followed their captain’s lead with the movement of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole proving particularly difficult for the Italians. As David Beckham jogged over to take a 24th minute corner, ITV co-commentator, former United boss and perma-tanned jewelry magnet, Ron Atkinson suggested that the next goal would be the most important of United’s season. Seconds later, Keane duly obliged with the ultimate captains’ goal, firing a glancing header past stranded Juventus ‘keeper Angelo Peruzzi.
Such was Keane’s focus, he barely celebrated but the goal invigorated United who began moving the ball around like sugared up children playing pass-the-parcel with an overly wrapped scented rubber. In the 34th minute, however, a misplaced Jesper Blomqvist pass forced Keane to bring down Zinedine Zidane and the Irishman was given the yellow card that meant, no matter the outcome, he would have no role to play in Barcelona. This was the same stadium where, nine years earlier, Paul Gascoigne had received a booking that would have caused him to miss the World Cup final but, rather than blub a toddler who’d dropped his ice cream, Keane was unyielding, the very embodiment of the grit and determination that characterises Alex Ferguson’s United.
What followed was immense. There were no 40-yard passes or no pointless step-overs but there was a master-class in midfield efficacy. Keano covered more grass than Season 5 of ‘Weeds’, chasing down loose balls, bolstering the defence and making surging runs in support of front men.
Within minutes of his booking, United were level thanks to a diving header from Dwight Yorke and Juventus were forced to chase the game. They responded by introducing Nicola Amoruso to partner Inzaghi up front and moving Zidane back into central midfield where diminutive water-carrier Didier Deschamps played Penfold to his Danger Mouse. Keane, however, was unperturbed and maintained his vice-like grip on the contest, reining in the World Cup winning duo with his trademark snarling aggression while simultaneously providing the impetus for the United’s passing game, offering a constant outlet and distributing quickly and efficiently.
Save for an Inzaghi effort that was ruled out for offside (his record-breaking 364th of the season) Juve offered very little in the second period. United, however, with Keane calling the shots like Paulie from ‘Godfellas’ (except a lot thinner and wearing a magic hat), continued to dominate, hitting the inside of the post for the second time in the game before Andy Cole finally put the game to bed.
There were a number of men in red who put in great performances that night, but the impact of Keane is best summed up by United manager and renowned trophy aficionado Alex Ferguson, who said: “It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass competing if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”