There is no game more difficult for an individual to dominate than football. Putting your own footprint on a match is nearly impossible –because of the space available, because of the specialisation of positions, because of the few moments upon which a result swings, and because it's hard. Only a handful of players can claim to have done so regularly – and they become the sport's immortals.
On the rare occasions when it does happen, most often it comes at the feet of a striker scoring a hat-trick, or a creative midfielder making chance after chance for his team. Almost never does a primarily defensive stature unmistakably take over a game, which is why fans remember what happened 17 years ago, in the 1999 Champions League semi-final, when Manchester United captain and defensive midfielder Roy Keane inspired his team to a historic second-leg comeback win against Juventus.
And he did it by being everywhere.
If you were to ask fans what they remember from Manchester United's 1999 treble-winning campaign, they might tell you about the classic FA Cup semi-final replay when Ryan Giggs lifted the 10-man United to an extra-time victory with a dizzying slalom through the Arsenal defence toward what is rightfully considered one of the greatest individual goals ever scored. Most likely, they'll recall the two stoppage time goals in the Champions League Final against Bayern Munich, which turned a one-goal deficit into one of the most improbable comebacks in the history of the sport. While it may not be as plainly spectacular as Giggs' winner or as miraculous as those dying minutes in Barcelona, Keane's may be the most impressive feat in United's famous season. As the captain of an ascendent Manchester United team, the Irishman was the heart of its midfield. It is somewhat fitting, then, that Keane's finest hour is sandwiched between those two extraordinary endings.
Such is the mythology surrounding Manchester United's 1999 season that it is easy to forget that, while they had come to dominate the Premier League, European supremacy still seemed a bridge too far. As they racked up domestic titles, United had struggled in the club game's biggest competition. They lost to Galatasaray in the second qualifying round in the 1993-94 season. A year later, they crashed out in the group stage. They improved as time went on, but manager Alex Ferguson still could not guide them past the semis.
When they found themselves back at that stage in 1999, they faced a Juventus team that had made three straight Champions League finals. In fact, an Italian team had made it to the final seven years in a row. The sense that United feared Juventus was demonstrated by a young Gary Neville, who upon hearing that they had qualified for the knockout phase betrayed a look of dismay that could not be misinterpreted. Indeed, years later Neville would claim that the Juventus team of the era was the best he ever faced. Juventus outplayed United at Old Trafford, and they had to consider themselves lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw. A berth in the final seemed unlikely, at best.
The first 10 minutes of the return leg at Juventus played out as something like United's worst nightmare. Filippo Inzaghi scored two quick goals and what was already a daunting task seemed to become near-impossible. It was then, as United struggled to hang on to any semblance of hope, that Roy Keane began to assert himself. For a player best known for his volatility, he was at his steadiest when the club needed it most. He began to turn United's defensive posture into attack with efficient short passing that allowed United back into the game.
Two-legged ties are a strange beast indeed. Because of the away goals rule, their entire tactical complexion can change in an instant. United had tried and failed to contain Juventus, and after finding themselves down two goals they had no choice but to attack. Juve were content to rely on the likes of Zinedine Zidane and the incisive Inzaghi to launch counterattacks, to keep United honest. Just one United goal could turn things upside down, because Juventus would then be threatened with defeat on away goals if United could somehow level the game. After a spell of pressure won them a corner, co-commentator Ron Atkinson echoed this sentiment, saying, "You know, the strange thing is, if United can score and get it to 2-1, they'll actually be in a better position than when they started the game...the next goal is the most massive goal of the season." Seconds later, Keane provided it.
Even the goal itself was unerringly calm. As David Beckham floated a cross into the box, Keane glided toward it, before twisting in mid-air to head the ball across the goal and into the back of the net. Commentator Clive Tyldesley said it best when he exclaimed, "Roy Keane with a captain's goal for Manchester United!" If the goal, only his fifth of the season, was out of character, the understated celebration was perfectly Keane – a quick pump of the fist followed by a jog back across midfield, ready to go again. 10 minutes later, Keane's only misstep in the match came as he was booked for a late challenge on Zidane, ruling him out of a potential final. United equalised less than two minutes later.
As the match wore on, Juventus were forced to press. Keane only grew in strength, despite knowing he would not take part in the biggest game of his career. Tasked with containing a midfield featuring the great Zidane, World Cup winner Didier Deschamps, and the powerful Edgar Davids, Keane would not cede territory. Other than a disallowed goal, Juventus rarely threatened until Andy Cole settled the tie with a late goal. It was Manchester United's first ever win in Italy.
As the years went by, Keane's relationship with manager Alex Ferguson soured; today they do not speak, except to disparage each other in the press or in another autobiography. Still, Keane's performance against Juventus garnered perhaps the highest praise of a player ever offered by Fergie. "It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field," he said. "Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt such an honor to be associated with such a player."
In keeping with the combative nature that has helped create his complicated legacy at Manchester United, Keane claimed he found the praise insulting: "It was like praising the postman for delivering his letters." Still, even if it was less sensational than Giggs' goal against Arsenal, or less memorable than United's finish in the final, most United fans remember Keane's night in Turin as the greatest individual performance during the Ferguson era. Today, you can watch footage of the United drressing room after they had finally overcome Juventus. As the team celebrates, the camera finds Keane sitting alone, exhausted from his effort and subdued. At the most critical juncture, Keane had put in a captain's shift, setting the table for his team to reach its ultimate goal. He should have been ecstatic. He might have been. It was always hard to tell.