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Football: KEANE: THIS IS VITAL PERIOD.

Byline: HARRY NOBLE

ROY Keane says it is 'crunch time' in Manchester United's pursuit of honours.

Keane leads his team against neighbours City today at the start of a 10-day period that ought to determine whether United will enter the latter stages of the campaign with any hope of adding to their vast trophy collection.

After the Premiership confrontation with Kevin Keegan's men, United visit Everton next weekend seeking a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals before they face AC Milan in the Champions' League knock-out phase.

Keane has restated his intention to end his playing days in 2006 but United boss Sir Alex Ferguson knows he can count on the Irishman to strain every sinew in pursuit of success.

The 33-year-old United captain said: 'If you're honest, over the first four or five months of a season, we are all jostling for position. But with the Milan games coming up, plus league and cup matches, you could say it's crunch time for everybody.

'For the manager, the players and the fans, this is where it gets exciting.

'There are some massive challenges in front of us. But that is what we are in the game for, and the challenge of trying to be successful is the reason we are at Manchester United.' Keane, magnificent in the past month, is back to being the top midfielder in the Premiership. Steven Gerrard and Patrick Vieira felt the full force of Keane's tenacity, before the Cork-born star singlehandedly lifted United over a stubborn Birmingham City outfit with his 50th United goal at Old Trafford last weekend. Keane has set his sights on Manchester City and their midfield tyro Joey Barton, who will carry the weight of responsibility in the home engine room as Paul Bosvelt is suspended.

Keane was missing when United lost to City in the last two campaigns - a 3-1 reverse at Maine Road in 2003, followed by a 4-1 mauling at Eastlands 12 months ago.

Captain Combative was present in November when City drew 0-0 at Old Trafford. The visitors barely advanced out of their own half.

With Cristiano Ronaldo struggling to overcome an Achilles injury, Paul Scholes should earn an instant recall after sitting out the Birmingham win.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Feb 13, 2005
Words:370
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