Not a classic final but a vintage Keane display

 

AN anti climactic final then, but it was ever thus. Few finals can possibly live up the pre match hype, this one most of all. Ultimately though, winning is everything.

As Brian Kidd, Manchester United's assistant manager, commented cryptically when passing through the madding throngs in the players' tunnel, "It's better to be lucky than good, innit?"

To a point, United were lucky, although Alex Ferguson made his own luck when he persuaded Eric Cantona to stay a year ago when most other managers would have said au revoir.

However, as he conceded there was no time for Liverpool to salvage something in response to Cantona's 86th minute volley, and there was a fortuitous ricochet off Ian Rush when the previously flawless David James managed just one weak punch on to David Beckham's outswinging corner.

Apart from Cantona's earlier volley which James saved brilliantly, one handed, sharply down to his near post, and the brave save at the feet of Andy Cole when the latter latched on to the rebound, United didn't create one other shooting opportunity in the second half.

Many of their players didn't perform particularly well either. Phil Neville afforded Jason McAteer too much space up the right; David Beckham was largely anonymous; Ryan Giggs flitted in and out; and Andy Cole again looked chronically short of confidence.

Much of the time they were chasing shadows against Liverpool's passing, if distinctly unpenetrative game. Admittedly, they were always more live to the quick counter attack and their attacks always carried more menace. However, the abiding impression from the game is that, at the risk of incurring the wrath of blinkered United people, better sides have failed to win doubles.

Indeed, the showers had hardly stopped running when United began turning their attentions to Europe, where Alex Ferguson admitted "we have let ourselves down in the past. We've got to make a bigger impact. We have to improve tactically and we need one or two players for next season to have a real go in Europe."

A passer to complement Roy Keane - he and Nicky Butt are a bit too similar - and a striker would seem top of his shopping list when he watches the European Championship finals with £10 million or more to spend in his back pocket.

Much has been made of the young bloods, but once again it was the veteran three of Peter Schmeichel, Cantona and particularly Roy Keane which held them together. Keane a veteran at 24? He seems to think so. "I feel like an old man sometimes," he conceded. "I'll be claiming the pension soon."

Keane was the main reason United went forward with the ball, and the main reason they limited the damage when Liverpool had it, shepherding Steve McManaman effectively and to the good of the team in the second half. That's what it's about for Keane, the good of the team.

The Man of the Match award? "I never worry about those things. It was more important that United won the game," he said genuinely. When he's retired he'll savour things like that.

Inevitably there were a couple of excesses in his all action, box to box display, sardonically blowing kisses at the Liverpool fans after collecting his medal and the scuffle with Robbie Fowler.

"It's a man's game and it was a particularly big match. People get involved in one or two niggly incidents but that was the end of it, it was over and done with.

"You'll never take out the determination in my game because that's my strength. I can't rely too much on skill because I haven't got much so I've got to look to my determination and my will to win. If you take that away then I'm only half the player. That will always be my game.

All in all, it was a classic Keane performance. The United fans appreciate his importance, and gave him the biggest reception as the players and management boarded the team bus. "I desperately want to stay at Old Trafford," he said, when his contract expires at the end of next season "but obviously it's got to be the right contract."

If Cantona was ultimately the difference then Keane's competitiveness kept United on a par with Liverpool in the first place.

The records will also show that Liverpool had more attempts on goal overall (12-5) and the same number on target (four). No doubt one of those possession graphs would be predominantly green and white, once Liverpool established a passing rhythm after being outplayed by an initially more confident United.

A breakthrough then, James saved adroitly from Beckham, might have led to a classic, because for that to happen there had to be an early goal. That move, like much else in their opening spell, was initiated by Roy Keane's curled pass up the line for Ryan Giggs.

In the first 11 minutes Keane made nine passes to colleagues. Only once did he give the ball away when not under pressure. At first Jamie Redknapp and John Barnes couldn't get into the game. Gradually, a nervous Liverpool settled but too few performed to par.

James was excellent and how the polished John Scales isn't an England regular on this evidence is a mystery. He held Liverpool together. But Rob Jones was very poor, a shadow of his former self. Reluctant to get up the line, too often inclined to turn inside on his favoured right foot, he was also the most culpable in breaching the Liverpool dictum by giving the ball away.

The comparatively somnolent Liverpool crowd are knowledgeable and it was noticeable that they turned their anger on Redknapp and Barnes. Like Stan Collymore, Redknapp resorted to many of Liverpool's distinctly speculative long range attempts.

A needlessly conservative backpass from halfway and a wayward crossfield ball that went dead in quick succession were indicative of a player who still hasn't found his real touch or form since returning from injury. One can understand Roy Evans's preference for a technically superb and masterful passer ahead of the more combative Michael Thomas, but in keeping Redknapp content in the long term the team may have suffered in the short-term.

Barnes practically collapsed in the final 15 minutes. During this time he couldn't move on to a loose ball and, typically of a wily old pro, used his body language to convey anger with Jones. The Liverpool fans didn't fall for that one. He was goosed, he knew it, and they knew it.

Collymore faded too after a seemingly hungry opening. Robbie Fowler tried hard but couldn't get in behind the excellent David May Gary Pallister partnership, his frustration becoming manifest. At least he tried. The TV cameras wouldn't have picked it up, but Collymore's work rate off the ball was minimal.

Likewise, many of Steve McManaman's runs weren't picked up by the camera or more pertinently by team mates. Where Liverpool enjoyed most success was in manoeuvring the ball to the overlapping Jason McAteer. No one delivered more crosses than McAteer, but the quality of his crosses was in keeping with the overall standard.

"There was a lot of nervousness in our team in the first 20 minutes. We didn't settle and gave the ball away too much. People will say we've had a bad season but we've reached a Cup final and qualified for Europe by finishing third in the league. We've laid the foundations. We know what we've got to do next season."