EVERYONE has their opinion on the end of Roy Keane's self-imposed exile at international level but one thing is clear: his country do not miss the player half as much as his club side do.

In the week in which the United skipper was talked out of retirement after two years, Keane's absence at club level was extended to two weeks as Manchester United crashed to defeat against unfashionable Portsmouth.

Rumours stiffened the south coast sea breeze as his name was left off the teamsheet by Alex Ferguson before the game. Talk of an Old Trafford exit have been circulating this week, and they were only fuelled by his omission from the side.

Was there any connection between his announcement and his latest absence? After all, Ferguson isn't thought to be thrilled by his decision, even if he has said publicly it could revitalise the 32-yearold's fortunes at club level.

The official line from his manager was 'bumps and bruises' kept him from taking his place in the team. That later changed to a tweaked hamstring. Whatever the reason, Keane being left out, along with Ruud Van Nistelrooy, was a pivotal moment in an exciting afternoon.

The history books may say Steve Stone was the matchwinner, with his 36th minute strike separating the sides.

Those present will tell a different tale. United lost the midfield after a frantic opening, lost a goal then lost their heads as their battle for second spot took a battering.

Of course they came back after some half-time hairdryer treatment from Ferguson, but without Keane's drive, organisation and leadership the upset was always on for Harry Redknapp's battlers.

And so it proved. Ferguson had a slightly different interpretation on why Portsmouth picked up their first home win over United in nearly half a century. Bad luck.

"We were unfortunate and we couldn't have tried any harder." he said. "It was a frustrating afternoon, but you don't know how to analyse that kind of match. We had so much of the play, but it was a windy day and a lively pitch.

It was tailor-made for the home side to win.

"When Portsmouth scored it was set up for them. They could play on the break and knock the ball up to their front two. They caused our defenders problems. It's a scrap for second place now.

The match with Chelsea is a massive one." Pompey set about gaining a foothold in the middle from the outset. Their industrious three-man midfield of Stone, Amdy Faye and Alexei Smertin were working harder and quicker than their United counterparts. Keane's understudy, Eric DjembaDjemba, was struggling to have any kind of influence on proceedings.

The pace was furious and the football scrappy at times, but that was a compliment to Portsmouth and their ability to knock a better footballing outfit out of their stride. Eyal Berkovic was the chief architect of United's downfall until his half-time substitution, as Harry Redknapp chose to stiffen his side.

United's 4-2-3-1 formation has been employed with varying degrees of success this season, but with Nicky Butt and Djemba-Djemba behind the more advanced trio of Ole Gunnar Solskaer, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, it left gaps for Portsmouth to exploit.

And they did that emphatically nine minutes before the interval as Stone sent Fratton Park into raptures with his second goal of the season.

Lomana LuaLua was the provider, bombing down the flank and whipping a cross into the penalty area. Gary Neville, under the attentions of Yakubu Ayegbeni, could only send the ball into the direction of Stone, who slid his shot past Roy Carroll after missing the initial delivery.

United almost replied immediately as Louis Saha beat Shaka Hislop to Butt's lofted delivery, but the ball looped on to the top of the keeper's net. Things didn't improve for them until the hapless Djemba-Djemba was replaced by Cristiano Ronaldo after 57 minutes.

He injected some much needed energy into United, but Portsmouth's outstanding defence stood firm in the face of the onslaught. The closest they came was a injury-time free-kick from the Portuguese winger, which whistled past Shaka Hislop's post.