Cantona the incomparable

FA Cup final: Frenchman's redemption complete as United become first side to win a second Double; Liverpool 0 Manchester Utd 1 ( Cantona 85)

The Eric Cantona story runs and runs with twist upon turn to defy the imagination of any scriptwriter. Just as an FA Cup final which was stubbornly refusing to live up to expectations was meandering towards extra time, up stepped the Frenchman to deliver a finish of quality and the trophy to Manchester United.

Thus when football history came knocking on United's door, when immortality beckoned, the response was resounding. Cantona's flourish, a flawless volley, sees the Cup housed at Old Trafford for a record ninth time and United become the first club in the English game to do the Double for a second time.

And thus is assured Alex Ferguson's place in the pantheon as his journey towards becoming the most successful manager ever in the British game nears completion. The only one to have done a Double in Scotland too, he now has 17 major trophies associated with him. "I can't think of anything better," he said as he savoured his achievement.

How Cantona, with whom his career is inextricably linked, has repaid the manager's single-minded loyalty to him during and after the eight- month ban following his loss of control at Selhurst Park in January of last year. How the Footballer of the Year has finished a season he did not even start.

The Double was won in 1994 with Cantona's considerable influence and lost last year without him. This season his goals at crucial times, allied to Peter Schmeichel's form at the other end of the pitch, have secured the championship, his fourth since his arrival in England five seasons ago, and his 19th brought the Cup.

David Beckham's outswinging corner from the right was falling teasingly away from David James on the edge of the Liverpool six-yard area. Stretching, the goalkeeper could only fist it downwards. Ian Rush, with a contribution in his final match for the club he has served so admirably he could have done without, diverted the ball into Cantona's path and stepping back a pace and a half to ensure knee and head over ball with body in perfect form, he sent the ball crisply through and past four defenders gravitating towards the goal-line.

"He had had a quiet game," Ferguson admitted but Cantona had seized the moment yet again. "Even if it is only for 15 seconds, I want to give the supporters the pleasure they deserve," he had said prophetically in a pre-match interview with the BBC.

Captain Cantona - with the 35-year-old stalwart Steve Bruce omitted in a poignant decision that illustrates the other side of the manager's job - completed his rehabilitation by enduring with disdain but without response the disgraceful spitting at him by a few Liverpool supporters as he made his way to receive the trophy.

That aside, a wonderful memory but an unmemorable match. "A grinding- out result," as Ferguson noted. Wembley was aflame with the red and white favours of the contestants and its passion aroused by a confrontation between the two biggest clubs the English game has to offer, the two with the fiercest rivalry. A contest of imprecise passing and wasteful shooting let it down, however, Liverpool in their green and white quarters the more off colour.

Andy Cole, preferred to Paul Scholes, was the first culprit. When Cantona headed on David May's ball forward, for example, to provide Cole with an early chance, he volleyed well wide.

It was an indication, however, of how much the better United established their rhythm. Roy Keane and Nicky Butt in their midfield were swift into the tackle, denying Steve McManaman a chance to get going, and Ryan Giggs often moved infield from the left to help break up the passing of Jamie Redknapp and John Barnes and pose problems of positioning for Liverpool's three defenders. Pulling wide on the right, Cantona did the same.

With Liverpool looking a little bemused, an excellent chance quickly materialised for United. Philip Neville sent Giggs away on the left and when he rolled the ball to the edge of the area, Beckham hit a powerful shot which James did well to turn aside. Suddenly Liverpool became aware of the task in front of them. Stan Collymore began to demand the ball up front, and to get it. Though his shooting was mostly off, at least he was taking the risk.

Although United should have had reward for a first half of holding a better shape and showing stronger resolve it was Liverpool who came the closer just before half time. McManaman got to the byline and found Mark Wright, who laid the ball back to Redknapp. His shot from 15 yards was, however, too high.

United had their best moment - until the decisive one - early in the second half when Cantona outjumped Jason McAteer to Beckham's deep cross and pounced as the ball dropped to send in a shot which James did well to turn aside one-handed. But they failed to build on it as Liverpool finally struck a tempo more to their own liking by passing the ball patiently along their backline. McManaman now enjoyed some galloping runs but still the finishing was poor. A sad Robbie Fowler was a shadow of his 36 goal-self and Redknapp consistently missed the target. When he did not, Schmeichel clutched to his chest the 25-yard drive.

United brought on Scholes for Cole and Liverpool threw in Rush for the fading Collymore - pounds 15.5m worth consigned to the bench - to see if he could on his swansong, extend his FA Cup record to 44 goals. The script demanded another name for its last line, however. That name, to become what the French call "le recordman", fatalistically and fittingly, was Eric Cantona.

Player-by-player assessments By Norman Fox

Liverpool

1 David James

3 saves

The question was could he hold ground shots. He did, but an aerial error let in Cantona whose blast would have beaten anyone

4 Jason McAteer

38 passes, 3 tackles

Plenty of spirit and Liverpool's most positive player until McManaman began operating in the second half. Pity about the crosses

12 John Scales

28 passes, 8 tackles

Coped with what little United threatened until the later stages. Never did more or less than his underestimated reputation demanded

5 Mark Wright

33 passes, 6 tackles

Calm and showed all his experience. Missed out when Cantona struck, but he saw off Cole in spite of playing off-centre

6 Phil Babb

24 passes, 4 tackles

Preferred to Ruddock in case Cole caused problems. Roy Evans was proved right with his choice as Cole was no threat

2 Rob Jones

26 passes, 1 tackle

Chances to go forward were limited by David Beckham always coming towards him. Effective without being adventurous

15 Jamie Redknapp

49 passes, 2 tackles, 2 shots

Given more space than McManaman but gained little from it and squandered too many chances on a day when only one was taken

17 Steve McManaman

41 passes, 0 tackles

Legend says Wembley is a big pitch. Not big enough even though he covered every blade in the second half and deserved reward

10 John Barnes

50 passes, 3 tackles

Never allowed the time and space he needs these days and so often created a decade ago when he wore Watford's colours

23 Robbie Fowler

18 passes, 3 tackles, 2 shots

The deadly young finisher was far from lethal. Easily pushed deep and, surprisingly for one so confident, again overawed by Wembley

8 Stan Collymore

12 passes, 1 tackle, 2 shots

Aiming high is all very well, but not that high or that often. David May took the credit for most of the mishits.

9 Ian Rush

3 passes, 1 tackle

(sub for Collymore, 74min)

If there was to be a fairy tale it had to involve Cantona or Rush who arrived too late to wave the wand on his last Liverpool appearance.

10 Michael Thomas

3 passes, 0 tackles

(sub for Jones, 85min)

Too little time to make any impact on a game that was already lost.

Substitute not used: Tony Warner

Manchester United

1 Peter Schmeichel

3 saves

Whinge, whinge, whinge all season but hardly a murmur yesterday - nothing to complain about and not much to save

3 Denis Irwin

26 passes, 4 tackles

In a season in which Alex Ferguson relied on the potential of youth, the 31-year-old had been an anchor. And he was again yesterday

12 David May

23 passes, 2 tackles

That goal against Middlesbrough guaranteed United the title but it was his defensive intercepting that was equally important yesterday

6 Gary Pallister

29 passes, 6 tackles

Injuries have curtailed his season, but you would not have known it. Solid and effective - a reflection of the game itself

23 Phil Neville

23 passes, 2 tackles

The emerging talent emerged well enough although McAteer's pace troubled him at first. Failed to exploit what space was offered

24 David Beckham

15 passes, 4 tackles, 1 shot

The self-confidence that verges on selfishness was not evident, though his one good shot was well diverted by James

16 Roy Keane

37 passes, 11 tackles, 1 shot

Temper tempered - what a power. Comfortably Man of the Match. Held everything Fowler and Collymore could throw at him

19 Nicky Butt

19 passes, 2 tackles

Youth in the spring of his step and on the day second only to Roy Keane in his ability as an attack destroyer

11 Ryan Giggs

18 passes, 2 tackles

An old hand at only 22 yet failed to come to terms with the expectancy of the day. One good run - disappointing, like the match

7 Eric Cantona

21 passes, 1 tackle, 3 shots,

1 goal

Lay down the video like a great French wine and uncork it for the grandchildren. Then play that one amazingly difficult shot over and over

17 Andy Cole

3 passes, 0 tackles, 1 shot

Cantona nearly exploded after Cole's third miss. The Frenchman made up for the errors, but was this Cole's last outing for United?

22 Paul Scholes

2 passes, 2 tackles

(sub for Cole, 65min)

Mark Wright dealt with the substitute as he had with Cole. A brief appearance for someone who will be back for longer, better days

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