On Tuesday night, Ryan Giggs will not merely hand over an armband to a repaired and re-energised Roy Keane, but also the entire weight of a club and their followers' expectation. Such is the belief that destiny has already shaped this season's Champions' League final as an engagement between the titans of Spanish and English football that the burden on the Manchester United captain would bend a lesser man.
Zinedine Zidane and Steve McManaman ensured that Real Madrid are primed to complete their side of the equation, with goals that silenced a fervent Nou Camp. But Manchester United's hold on Sir Alex Ferguson's fantasy, a triumphant march into Hampden Park on 15 May, is considerably more tenuous.
Whether it was fatigue that contributed to such bafflingly imprecise passing and a general lack of cohesion as Wednesday night's first leg progressed, or the fact that Bayer Leverkusen's industry did not allow them to establish their anticipated dominant patterns of play, United never gave the impression that they would overcome the German side as Arsenal had done at Highbury in February. Their build-up, normally so studiously inventive, was punctuated by error. Juan Sebastian Veron looked uncomfortable in David Beckham territory, and Giggs discovered nothing like the freedom to supplement Ruud van Nistelrooy through the middle that he had against Chelsea last Saturday. Nicky Butt tackled tigerishly, but he is essentially a holding player, not the creative force he seemingly desires to become in Keane's absence.
For as much as Ferguson derides those who dare criticise his rearguard, specifically Laurent Blanc, he must privately yield that United remain fallible to the swift thrust down the flank. In the authoritative Michael Ballack, whose goal was converted with nonchalance, being almost dug out of the turf on the half-volley, Oliver Neuville, scorer of the second, and Dimitar Berbatov, Leverkusen have more than sufficient talented finishers to exploit that United weakness.
Considering what damage Leverkusen inflicted on Liverpool's miserly defence at the BayArena, where the German club have been defeated only once in the Champions' League this season, the one certainty is that it will not finish scoreless on Tuesday night.
As Giggs, always candid, observed: "We can't play much worse than we did tonight; but 1-0 wasn't a bad scoreline for us at half-time. If it had ended that way, it would have been a great result. We always seem to do it the hard way at this club. But when we've got to do it, we usually produce."
He added: "They're a good team. They deserved their goals in the second half. We tried to catch them on the break, but we didn't really hang on to the ball and they were straight back at us. Like all German teams, they're strong physically. They pack the midfield and they've got strong lads at the back."
Throughout Wednesday's second half, Leverkusen swelled in confidence and their fans began to assail their United counterparts with their version of "You only sing when you're winning". Yet, psychologically, the legacy of that appearance by Keane, only the briefest of encounters admittedly, but sufficient for him to impede the goal-bound progress of Ze Roberto, will be a scintilla of doubt in the German psyche. …