Burden of expectation on Cantona

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The Independent Online

To some it would be heresy. As Manchester United's charter plane landed in a wintry Vienna yesterday, the thought occurred that we might be about to witness Eric Cantona's last Champions' League game.

It is a plausible scenario. If Manchester United lose their final Champions' League Group C match against Rapid Vienna here tonight, they will be out of this season's competition. If they avoid defeat they will still have to achieve a better result than Fenerbahce manage against Juventus in Turin tonight.

If they do not, United would have to finish in the Premiership's first two to qualify for next year's competition. That is by no means certain, and even second place only earns entry to the qualifying round.

Failure in Europe tonight, and at home in May, could prompt a rebuilding which even Cantona may not survive. Sure, he is a central figure at Old Trafford, the inspiration behind two Doubles and three titles. It is suggested that he is earmarked for a coaching role in years to come.

Yet when has he ever done it at the highest level? He played well in Istanbul this year but, with respect, Fenerbahce are not among Europe's giants. He was twice anonymous against Juventus and subdued at home to Fenerbahce. In the past he was intemperate against Galatasaray and inconsequential in Gothenburg. He did little in Europe for Leeds - just one game, against Stuttgart - and has played so poorly for France he is now ignored.

Ferguson has great faith in him, but how his eyes were opened by Zinedine Zidane's performances for Juventus against United. There are other such players in Europe, players that Manchester United, with their resources and reputation, could capture.

Thus Cantona is playing for more than just Manchester United's quarter- final place tonight. He is playing for his future and his reputation. Unfortunately for him he is not playing well at present. He has not scored and barely created in eight games.

Cantona's form is not a subject Alex Ferguson cares to discuss. Though the manager says he has "enjoyed" the twisting fates of this season's Champions League campaign, the pressures are telling. He was a tense mixture of bonhomie and tetchiness as he looked ahead to the game yesterday.

"It won't be easy but it is not beyond us," he said. "I won't be worrying about the other match; we have to concentrate on our own game. We need to be ourselves. The players are determined."

That much was clear as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, David Beckham and Gary Neville interrupted their lunch to talk. The three were an interesting contrast. Solskjaer remains wide-eyed about his United career; Beckham radiated the confidence of a successful season while Neville carried the introspective mood of a more uncertain one.

He was also the most thoughtful. "It is a massive game. When I first came into the team I did not think about what was at stake, I just played the game. When you are young you do not feel the same tension.

"There seems to be more expectancy this year. We are expected to do well in the Champions' League, we are expected to win the League again. That has been one of the difficult things to come to terms with.

"We've had the worst patch most of us young players have ever had. We are used to winning games. It used to be bad enough to lose one, and we would then win five or six. The performances have not been what we have wanted but I think we have pulled out of it pretty well. The season is still there for the taking."

United's revival has been helped by the return of Ryan Giggs, Gary Pallister and Roy Keane, all of whom will play tonight. Rapid Vienna are without the suspended Andrez Lesiak.

The Austrians secured the domestic winter championship at the weekend - their league is split into two sections - and are unbeaten in 15 home European ties. "Our record was 40 years," Ferguson said dismissively.

Ferguson's one hard decision is the choice of Cantona's partner: Solskjaer or Jordi Cruyff? The Norwegian appears to dovetail better.

Solskjaer said of Cantona's influence: "He has helped me a lot. During games he will advise me where to run, where to play the ball, he has so much experience."

It is time that experience showed.

Manchester United (probable v Rapid Vienna, Vienna, tonight): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Butt, Keane, Giggs; Cantona, Solskjaer.

Rapid Vienna: Konsel; Schottel, Ivanov, Jovanovic, Prosenik; Heraf, Kuhbauer, Zingler, Ratajczk; Stoger, Wagner.