Who's the greatest: Keane or Vieira?

With Paddy V swapping boots for suits, both the tussling titans of yesteryear have retired from playing. Rather unfairly, we asked Declan Warrington who would win in a (football) fight...

Mayweather or Pacquiao? McCaw or Carter? Federer or Nadal? The sporting world is littered with comparisons and debates about who is the best in their respective field, who had the best career and, ultimately, who was the defining talent of any given era.

The Premier League is about to enter its 20th season but in all those years no rivalry for supremacy has divided opinion in the same way as that between Arsenal's Patrick Vieira and Manchester United's Roy Keane. Any such discourse is received with greater assimilation given the added benefit of hindsight and, perhaps more significantly, without the issue being clouded by the passions of the present.

However, Vieira’s decision last week to end a glittering career naturally prompts the ideal time with which to revisit this greatest of debates and to finally crown one or the other as the superior talent.

His decision to leave Arsenal in the summer of 2005, followed five months later by Keaneg’s departure from Manchester United to Celtic, brought a dramatic change in the landscape of the Premier League. Two titans had moved on and, despite some unquestionably superb central midfielders taking their place, there’s been no such rivalry since.

Those who claim Vieira is the more pivotal player could note that Arsenal have failed to win a single trophy since his departure, while United have claimed several in the post-Keane era. But it would be far too simplistic to suggest that that is entirely down to either player’s contribution.

It would be equally disingenuous to boast that Vieira won a World Cup and a European Championship. His international team-mates included Zinedine Zidane, Lillian Thuram and Fabien Barthez; the Republic of Ireland team Keane captained failed to qualify for either of the tournaments France won, perhaps because they featured the likes of Mark Kennedy, Tony Cascarino and Steve Staunton – good professionals, but unlikely world champions.

By the same train of thought, it would be unfair to dismiss Vieira because of his inability to win a Champions League medal. Keane – whilst undoubtedly the team's heartbeat – lined up in a midfield alongside David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs for most of that campaign. Had Vieira replaced Keane, a similar triumph would be perfectly conceivable.

Whomp! Charity Shield, August 1998

There are 10 Premier League title triumphs – and many other medals – between the two. And while the balance of honours sways convincingly in Keane’s favour, it is as individuals that each man is best judged.

Keane and Vieira were unquestionably the most revered box-to-box central midfielders the Premier League has witnessed. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have good reason to object, but Gerrard’s frequent deployment in other roles – with notable success – means he cannot easily be bracketed in that particular position. Lampard, conversely, falls ever so slightly short on true quality.

Between Keane and Vieira, the Frenchman had the physical advantage. He was the more natural athlete: taller (by almost six inches), stronger and faster. On paper, it would have been unfair to ask Keane to compete with him for 90 minutes – but that’s exactly what Sir Alex Ferguson always did and exactly what Keane succeeded in doing.

Keane’s winning mentality, his irresistible desire – akin to a Gladiator in a Roman colosseum, fighting for his life – saw him succeed in even the most unlikely of circumstances. And if there is to be a dividing factor surrounding the two, it is perhaps that which gave him the edge over Vieira as the better footballer.

The Irishman’s finest hour came in Turin, with the Manchester United side he captained two goals down and facing elimination in the 1999 Champions League semi-final. Keane's early yellow card would rule him out of the final even if the team got there.

Lesser men would have shrunk, licked the wounds of their battered pride and accepted the inevitability of defeat. Not Keane. He drove his team on, scoring the first goal in their fightback, and dominated the midfield against Zidane, Didier Deschamps, Antonio Conte, Angelo di Livio and Edgar Davids. Thanks to Keane, United reached the final because, without him, they wouldn’t have done so.

Whack! Premiership, August 1999

Therein lies a crucial difference between the two; where Vieira played an influential role in victories, he was less likely to raise his game (and those of his team-mates) by that extra level in the clutches of defeat. All of the greats have a consistently high level, but there are special players who can occasionally become immortal for the duration of the game, propelling their tired legs and stealing the show like Keane did that night against Juventus, or Gerrard did for Liverpool against AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final.

Vieira advocates will say that the Frenchman schooled Gerrard in the 2001 FA Cup Final, but that was a battle Vieira should have won: he was, at that time, the superior player and playing in a superior side, who lost that day against the underdogs.

That Keane suffered a career-threatening cruciate ligament injury in the 1997/98 season underlines what a great player he really was. The likes of Ronaldo and Paul Gascoigne were never quite the same after suffering the same injury, yet Keane had it in him to bounce back and produce possibly his finest ever season immediately after.

Where Vieira’s reliance on his athleticism saw a rather dramatic decline towards the end of his career, Keane remained an important player – first to United, then Celtic – until the day he retired. Vieira has, for some time, been treading water: returning with Juventus in 2006, he was ruthlessly exposed by an 18-year-old Cesc Fabregas.

More recently, he has been behind the likes of Gareth Barry in Manchester City’s pecking order, something that would never have happened to Keane. That’s not to say Vieira wasn’t skilled technically – he was more than just an athlete – just that he didn’t adapt to his ageing body in the same way that Ryan Giggs recently did.

Clong! Premiership, September 2003

Recent Arsenal-United clashes in some ways serve as a microcosm of the Vieira versus Keane debate. United have in many ways been outplayed by Arsenal, yet generally succeed in getting a grip on the game and have enough tenacity and drive to grind out a win. In that same way, Vieira occasionally looked the more cultured player but Keane retained his propensity to find the edge.

It is often overlooked how difficult it could be to play alongside Paul Scholes. A superb player, yet one with a unique style; his best was rarely on display for England and that’s because the chemistry was rarely entirely right for him to perform. Keane found the right balance, and he avoided sacrificing himself in the process. He also had another, equally rare talent: no matter the opposition, no matter the stage and no matter the pressure, he always looked as though he had time on the ball and was peerless in that respect.

Sir Alex Ferguson described him as “a great warrior”, while John Giles said he was “a great footballer, by any standards”. Vieira may have been a quality player, but he didn’t have that extra gear, he didn’t have an overwhelming drive and he didn’t overcome the odds against the very best.

Granted, Keane was surrounded by better players than Vieira was, but it was as an individual that his greatest qualities were underlined. To be widely considered Arsene Wenger’s greatest signing shows how highly Vieira could actually perform. There’s no doubting his class; it’s just that Keane was narrowly better.

An image is firmly set in the mind: that of Keane racing 30-40 yards to dispossess Vieira in another of their titanic tussles. Vieira looks typically composed, spearheading another Arsenal attack, yet Keane manages to summon that inner drive, aggression and energy to lead by example, cover the necessary ground and make an inch-perfect tackle to dispossess his rival.

There could be no more appropriate image. Vieira, every inch the quality player and superior to almost any opponent, just losing out to Keane, the tormented soul and fierce competitor who always found a way to come out on top.

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