This time Cantona used his head, then contributed a kick more appropriate to United's cause. Twice he struck, with a header and penalty stroked home with customary confidence, to halt Wimbledon mini-revivals after they had twice halved a two-goal deficit. The brace ensured that United regained second place in the table and remain nine points behind Newcastle.
Security was tight, with stewards aplenty and Cantona's minder Ned Kelly whisking him to the dressing room from the team bus, which drew up right at the players' entrance 90 minutes before kick-off. There was never a likelihood of trouble, however, with three parts of Selhurst given over to United fans and Cantona these days giving rein to his better nature.
"It's just been a normal week for us," said the United manager Alex Ferguson. "Although it's been a good one for the tabloids. We didn't change our approach." He must hope that normal weeks can always end in such victories.
From the outset, Roy Keane and Nicky Butt were sharper and more aggressive in midfield, establishing control for United. Then Steve Bruce was lost from their defence 13 minutes into the game having received a gash to his forehead that required 14 stitches, after an elbow, seemingly unintentional, from Dean Holdsworth - who himself finished the game on a stretcher having twisted a knee, an injury which could keep him out for six weeks. With Bruce gone you wondered if United's edge might be dulled with Keane taking up back-four duties.
But not a bit of it. On came David Beckham to give a performance almost as influential as Cantona's - and matching Gary Neville's in defence - and help them to a two-goal half-time lead. As a prelude, United came close to taking the lead when Butt met Ryan Giggs's corner, Neil Sullivan clawing the header on to a post.
Then Beckham cleverly clipped a ball over his own head and into Denis Irwin's path on the right, giving him space for a cross which Andy Cole nodded home at the far post with a good leap. Moments later, after Lee Sharpe had been brought down on the edge of the penalty area, Beckham curled an excellent free-kick on to the underside of the Wimbledon bar and Chris Perry, with a helping challenge from Keane, headed the rebound into his own net.
Wimbledon's tenacity was more in evidence in the second half and just after brushing the bar with a header, Marcus Gayle struck with a half- volley from Alan Kimble's hanging, curling cross from the right.
Then Cantona took over. From a central position on the edge of their penalty area he found Beckham and met the return cross with a firm header guided past Sullivan.
The alert substitute Jason Euell again gave United some anxious moments after latching on to Keane's header back to a flat-footed Schmeichel, rounding the goalkeeper and steering the ball home. But again Cantona, who had assumed Bruce's captain's armband, soothed the nerves.
Giggs's shot was deemed to have been handled by Kenny Cunningham and Cantona stepped up to stroke home the penalty. The prodigal's return and redemption was complete.
"He has great composure, great touch and great vision," said the Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear. "Unfortunately, he wasn't playing for us. Some people say that by controlling his temperament he is a lesser player, but I don't see it like that."Reuse content