Ghost of Keane haunts Old Trafford
© AFP

Roy Keane had supposedly been one of the leading candidates to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson as Manchester United manager when the Scot finally chooses to call it a day at Old Trafford.

A legendary former United captain, the man that embodied Ferguson on the pitch, there seemed to be nobody better qualified to fill the hottest seat in football when it eventually becomes vacant. Yet when Keane's Sunderland visit Old Trafford Saturday, they will do so as Keane's Sunderland no more.

Having lost five of their last six league games, the Wearsiders have dropped into the Premier League's relegation zone and the slide into trouble has proved too much for the combustible Irishman, who has now called time on his two-year reign at the club.

Perhaps the fear of suffering a further defeat at Old Trafford prompted Keane to go two days before his return to Manchester. The prospect of having his job taken away from him at the scene of his greatest moments as a player was perhaps too bitter a pill to swallow.

But with United now hitting the form that carried them to the Premier League and UEFA Champions League titles last season, a ruthless dismantling of Sunderland on Saturday is by no means beyond the realms of possibility.

Former United coach Ricky Sbragia will take Keane's place in the dug-out at Old Trafford, and Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn admits that, once Keane had opted to quit, there was never any likelihood of being able to persuade him to perform a U-turn.

Huge standards
Quinn said: "Roy's tough on himself. He's got huge standards and he probably felt that United at Old Trafford is a tough game on Saturday. But after that we've got a home game and we're playing teams down there near us, so I'd hoped Roy would judge himself perhaps after those games.

"Everybody at the club has huge respect for Roy, though. He lifted this place off its knees when he came here. He's had a tremendous influence and it's a shame that things happen this way. It's tough because, when you look back five weeks ago after we had beaten Newcastle, people were dancing in the streets."

Without Keane at the helm, Sunderland face a daunting task against United. Ferguson's men rattled in five goals against Blackburn on Wednesday to reach the League Cup semi-finals, with Carlos Tevez now being credited with four of them, despite his opener appearing to go in off the back of Blackburn defender Aaron Mokoena.

Tevez has struggled to claim a regular place this season following the September arrival of Dimitar Berbatov, but the Argentinian has been backed by United team-mate Jonny Evans. Evans said: "The goals against Blackburn were the best way for Carlos to respond. He is a real fighter and he will never shy away from that.

"The fans know what Carlos is all about. He works hard every time he is on the pitch and it will do him good to get his name on the scoresheet. No matter what is happening, his work-rate is always phenomenal. He just can't help himself, which is great for the team."

Ferguson could also hand Paul Scholes a first start since his recovery from knee surgery two months ago.