Manchester United icon and Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane has leapt to the defence of Marouane Fellaini, insisting that he has unfairly represented something of a scapegoat for frustrated supporters at Old Trafford. The towering midfielder will hope to break Irish hearts on Saturday afternoon (18 June) as Martin O'Neill's side face a wounded Belgium in their Euro 2016 Group E clash at the Matmut Atlantique in Bordeaux.
Fellaini was effectively facing an uphill battle from the start at United, with his £27.5m ($39.2m) switch from Everton coming little over a month after his cheaper release clause had expired. He has gained little in popularity since then and saw his reunion with former boss David Moyes last for just a matter of months before the latter was prematurely dismissed.
Successor Louis van Gaal's over-reliance on the distinctive 28-year-old as an effective attacking plan B further bemused supporters, while he has also become unpopular for frequent use of his elbows.
He was handed a three-game suspension by the Football Association (FA) for clashing with Leicester City defender Robert Huth in May and also appeared to accidentally catch club teammate Matteo Darmian during an underwhelming showing in Belgium's morale-sapping defeat to Italy on Monday.
Fellaini, along with the likes of Juan Mata, Marcos Rojo and Memphis Depay, is one of the current crop of United players who could be moved on following the appointment of Jose Mourinho. Former captain Keane, however, believes he plays an important role and that others are far more worthy of criticism.
"I like him," he told reporters in Versailles as relayed by the Irish Times. "I thought the criticism he had when he went to United was a bit over the top. I think it was just because he came in at the last minute when David Moyes was there and fans were maybe quick to jump on his back. I saw him a few times live when United weren't great and thought he did OK.
"But he seemed to be the scapegoat for the fans. But we saw him recently scoring some important goals. I like him. I liked him at Everton and I think he's a good player for Man United. The criticism he's had... I think he's more of a scapegoat than anything else, which can happen when a new manager brings in certain players and the new signings get criticism. If anything, they should have been criticising the experienced players at United who weren't helping him out or who weren't helping out the new manager. But that's another story."
The Republic of Ireland will go into their match with Belgium as firm underdogs, yet may be quietly confident about posing further problems for Marc Wilmots' "Golden Generation" that were considered by many as one of the pre-tournament favourites due to their embarrassment of attacking riches that includes Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. The Boys in Green led an underwhelming Sweden side in their opening fixture courtesy of a fantastic strike from Norwich City playmaker Wes Hoolahan, yet ended up drawing the match after Ciaran Cark inadvertently headed Zlatan Ibrahimovic's near-post cross into his own net.