Cantona set to face Liverpool from the start

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The Independent Online


As Alex Ferguson asked for Eric Cantona to be treated like everyone else yesterday, the Manchester United manager went against his own pleadings. The Frenchman, hopelessly short of match practice after serving an eight- month suspension, will start against Liverpool on Sunday.

It will be the first day after his ban ends on Saturday and his first match since 25 January when his assault of a Crystal Palace supporter led to his missing the end of last season and the start of this. But this is his fourth or fifth chance to redeem his reputation .

"He will definitely play from the start," Ferguson said after Cantona trained with the rest of the United first team before four film crews and around 100 other members of the media. "I told him weeks ago that he will be playing against Liverpool. His rightful place is in big games.

"I could have put him in the reserves for four or five games until he got his match fitness back but there would be a cry from the fans because they want to see him and there would be more media men at the games than supporters. I have no fears about Sunday."

Whether Cantona has his own fears, he kept them to himself. The press conference was in his honour but he preferred to keep his Gallic shrugs for the Old Trafford pitch, playing keep-ball with Ryan Giggs, Lee Sharpe and Andy Cole. His appearance, green-bibbed, stubble-chinned and oozing confidence, suggested nothing untoward had happened. That Sunday was just another game.

Only Ferguson, who believes Cantona was the catalyst in two championship triumphs, had been aware of a difference. "I've noticed this week he's been quiet," he said, "quieter than normal. Obviously there's some mental preparation going on there. That's the only change.

"There's bound to be apprehension in the lad because he hasn't played for so long. It's a big game for him, the adrenalin will help on Sunday but after three or four games I'll expect he'll go flat before he can take off again. Lack of match fitness will account for that. He'll be tired and he'll probably take little rests in Sunday's game, but he'll manage."

Whether Cantona can manage a temper that has led to him being sent off five times in his three years at United was a question no one, not even the man himself, could properly answer.

"I hope so," Ferguson said. "I wouldn't think anyone would want to go down that road again. I don't think anyone will get that kind of ban in England again, and I don't think he'd want to suffer it, not for himself or his family.

"He's taken his punishment, he's served his community service, he's worked really hard in training. He just needs the football now. There will be times when he loses his temper in a game - plenty of footballers do that - but he has to live with it. He has to show maturity and responsibility.

"What he'll offer is what he'll always offer, the ability to find space, the ability to open a defence, composure on the ball. That won't vanish, he'll always have that whether he is emotional or unemotional."

There remained the moral question. Should United have retained the services of a player who had dragged the name of the club through law courts, news bulletins and a thousand headlines?

Ferguson, who initially had to be persuaded by members of the club's board to retain Cantona, paused for an age of thought and then replied: "In terms of skill he is a true Manchester United player and there are very few in the modern game. He fits what the supporters expect in terms of ability and what they have grown up with for decades.

"Another thing in his favour is that, off the field, he is absolutely no problem at all. In training he is magnificent. The dedication, his preparation for football matches, is first class. I think I've done the right thing in giving it a go because if he returns to his form of three years ago, we will be a much, much better team."

The reason for Ferguson's soul-searching and part of the justification for the huge media interest was just over the manager's left shoulder. On the wall behind him was a photograph of Cantona lifting the Premiership trophy aloft.

"He wants to play here," Ferguson said. "He has shown his most consistent form as a footballer at Old Trafford, the supporters idolise him and he's happy here.

"There are a lot of advantages for him here. There are a lot of things for Eric to consider if he ever thought about wanting to move."

Referring to his own role, Ferguson, too, expects a change. "I need to talk to the players a bit more. I think over the last year my job has possibly had too many branches. I've made myself available to too many people. I used to have one-to-ones with players a lot, including Eric. I'm going to be doing more of that." The question now is: will Cantona listen?