When Roy Keane was carried off with a hamstring injury in Manchester United FC's comfortable 2-0 UEFA Champions League quarter-final first-leg victory at RC Deportivo La Coruña, it seemed the hopes of success at home and abroad for the English champions had been severely compromised. All the more so when David Beckham prematurely followed his captain to the dressing room later in the game.
Although United have seemingly surrendered their FA Premiership title to Arsenal FC and left themselves with a steep upward climb in the second leg of tonight's semi-final against Bayer 04 Leverkusen after last week's 2-2 home draw, it has been through no fault of Keane's replacement, Nicky Butt. Indeed United's form - the Leverkusen game apart - has been sustained throughout Keane's absence and Butt has played no small part in it.
Star in the ascendancy
Many people have had to completely re-evaluate their opinion of this fiery player, who deputised for the suspended Keane in the 1999 Champions League final. Those who considered him little more than a terrier in midfield have been forced to concede that he is a terrier of a definite pedigree breed. It is not just at Old Trafford that Butt's star has been in the ascendancy: he impressed for England in the recent friendly against Paraguay.
'Got to get better'
While Sir Alex Ferguson will be delighted to have Keane back in the side at the BayArena, the United manager will think twice before relegating Butt to the substitutes' bench. He was one of the few United players to play up to scratch in the first leg last week. The apparent transformation in Butt is news to the player himself. "It's just a case of consistency, the more you play the more confident and fitter you get," he said. "You just get into a nice routine, playing more games. I think I was just as good a player last season although maybe not as mature. But now I'm at an age where I've got to start getting better each year."
Living on the edge
While Butt's technical ability has been more evident of late, his combative streak is still central to his game and he is one of the four United players one caution away from missing the Hampden Park final should the English champions qualify. United fans are probably more fearful for him than he is for himself. Anyone who tackles as hard as Butt does is used to living on the edge.
Biggest game of his life
As a result, when asked how difficult it is to go into a major semi-final knowing that one mistimed tackle could put him out of the final, he replied: "It's not difficult at all. You've just got to go into the game and play as you would normally. You've got to put it out of your head. If you did worry about it, you would not be competing properly." And that to Butt's way of thinking would, of course, be sacrilege.
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