CANTONA A genuine genius at play
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One of the more curious football pitch invasions of the 1970s occurred at Old Trafford. A man, seemingly sober and in touch with his senses, headed for Brian Kidd and, before the police could stop him, kneeled to the ground with appropriate supplication and offered a gold crown to the young striker.

The crowd and the players understood the gesture. Denis Law, "the king", was gone and a pretender was being put up in his place. The crown was made of paper, though, and Kidd's career at Old Trafford proved only slightly more substantial and he was transferred in 1974.

It was what historians would describe as Manchester United's Commonwealth period. The crowd wanted a royalty, instead they got puritan poverty lightened only by the occasional cup win. Then Eric Cantona swaggered haughtily through the door...

Even Alex Ferguson, United's manager, was surprised. Some players, he said, come to Old Trafford and are diminished by the history and expectation that swirl round the place. Cantona acted as if he had at last found an appropriate stage to parade his talents. It was an impression shared by supporters, who dashed off to their French dictionaries to look up words like roi and dieu.

After 26 years of nearly men, they recognised the real thing and he provoked the same adoration that Law enjoyed, but which even George Best and Bryan Robson failed to achieve. Like Law, there is a brilliance but there is an arrogance, too. The Frenchman exuded belief in a team who had learned to doubt when Leeds (with Cantona) pipped them for the title and that confidence was justified by two championships in two seasons.

To understand Cantona's value one has only to look at what happened last year when his moment of madness at Selhurst Park condemned him to a 10- month exile from football. United finished second, a point - in effect a goal - short of a hat-trick of Premiership titles and it was clear where Ferguson expected that goal would have come from.

Three home 0-0 draws against Tottenham, Leeds and Chelsea loomed in his mind. "I'm sure Eric would have got a goal in at least one of those games," he said. "His suspension definitely cost us the championship."

That has been underlined in the last month when Cantona has scored in five successive matches, winning games which 12 months ago would have been draws, and taking United to a three-point lead in the Premiership and to the semi-finals of the FA Cup. At times he seems driven to make up for last year, to make amends.

Yet, for all this will, his great quality is a mind which seems uncluttered by tension. Where other players freeze he stays calmly analytical, and his goals are usually worth more than the icing on a cake long since baked by earlier strikes.

Since his return from suspension on 1 October he has scored 15 times in 30 games and only the last-minute third against Reading in the second leg of a Coca-Cola Cup tie has been meaningless.

His winning or equalising goals, often late in the game, have accrued 19 Premiership points for United and kept them in the FA Cup against Sunderland.

The fact that the leading scorer also brandishes the conductor's baton is a wonderful bonus. Without Cantona, United have the likes of Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole to make them difficult, but they can be contained. With him, the lines of supply become difficult to predict. Cole may be missing chances but he is still getting them, largely provided by Cantona.

"We just need to give Eric the ball," Gary Neville, United's full-back, said, giving an indication of the value the United players place on their colleague, never mind the fans. "Give him the ball and he'll work wonders with it. He inspires everyone.

"He is every type of player you could wish for. He can be a target man, he can drop off, he scores goals, he can pass... he's got everything. He can adapt, too, to every type of game. Whether it's home or away, he'll play a different role with equal effect."

So far Cantona has won the championship every season he has completed in England and never lost an FA Cup tie. Chelsea will know he is United's key man - but knowing does not necessarily add up to stopping.

Last week, Ferguson said he was fed up with describing him as magnificent. You suspect the Londoners will be even more brassed off tomorrow...