When the tough get going, Eric Cantona gets a new lease of life. By scoring in six consecutive games this time last year, he helped Manchester United reel off the victories which reeled in Newcastle. Here, for the second time in successive home matches, he was close to paradoxical perfection as the team leader with the maverick's touch.
When the champions prised four points from visits to Arsenal and Chelsea without the suspended Cantona, more than one good judge suggested his mantle now belonged to David Beckham. In the comprehensive defeat of Sheffield Wednesday, as in the hurricane-force football that blew away Porto, the Frenchman demonstrated that he is still United's pivotal figure.
The big Continental game away from Old Trafford remains the only stage on which Cantona has yet to impose his artistry and authority. The second leg of the European Cup quarter-final, in which Alex Ferguson's side take a 4-0 lead to Portugal on Wednesday, offers a fresh opportunity.
Typically, the captain contributed to both goals in a manner for which opposing managers can not legislate. His vision and virtuosity in a space where there was not room to open a broadsheet newspaper released Andy Cole for the first. Then a balletic, mid-air flick turned a routine cross into a source of panic, enabling Karel Poborsky to bludgeon the second.
At times Cantona strutted his stuff as if it were an exhibition match. He played more back-heeled passes in one afternoon than most people do in a career; one to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer solicited a reverential gasp from the row of former internationals working for local radio. Another deftly cushioned flick sent Ryan Giggs clear for one of numerous chances wasted by United.
The way he found space would surely have brought him a goal had Poborsky not imitated a headless chicken at the vital moment. The only mystery was why David Pleat, the Wednesday manager, did not depute Peter Atherton to repeat his own party-piece impersonation, that of the leech which drained Steve McManaman of influence at Anfield. Porto will permit Cantona similar freedom at their peril.
Other plusses for Ferguson included the return of Nicky Butt, a tenacious counterpoint to the flamboyance of Cantona, Beckham and Giggs. The availability of Roy Keane and Ronny Johnsen will give Ferguson an embarrassment of midfield riches in Oporto, and yesterday Cole, who left the field on Saturday with a thigh strain, was passed fit after treatment.
Considering both United's advantage and their poor record in fixtures immediately after European duty - three defeats and two draws in the last five - there is a case for resting key players this week to have them fresh to face Everton on Saturday. It is not, however, in their manager's make-up to do so; he is acutely aware that Porto beat them by the same score in the Cup-Winners' Cup 20 years ago and still contrived to lose the return 5-2.
Moving on to more recent history, it seems strange to reflect that Cantona might have been in Wednesday's colours had he impressed Trevor Francis more during a brief trial five years ago. One can not help feeling Pleat would have appreciated his potential impact rather more readily.
One of the few faces Cantona would have remembered from Hillsborough, David Hirst, miscued horribly when he had the chance to put Wednesday ahead after 12 minutes. Another, Kevin Pressman, belied his appearance as a podgy sixth-former to keep the score down as Wednesday's third game in seven days caught up with them.
Pleat has confounded the limited expectations of supporters this season without, one senses, winning them over. If there was a criticism of Wednesday on Saturday it was that they offered a negligible physical challenge to Cantona and company. This was a game of only four fouls, no bookings and hardly any bodily contact - ideal for United's preparations.
Talking of matters Merseyside, the watching Spice Girls may have been surprised to receive a less than rapturous reception at half-time. "You're Scouse and you know you are" reasoned one section of the crowd in what was hardly a song for Europe. Old Spice himself, Cantona, soon refocused minds on less parochial concerns.
Goals: Cole (19) 1-0; Poborsky (61) 2-0.
Manchester United (4-3-1-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Butt, Giggs; Cantona; Solskjaer (Scholes, 83), Cole (Poborsky, 23). Substitutes not used: P Neville, Cruyff, Van der Gouw (gk).
Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-1-1): Pressman; Nolan, Walker, Stefanovic, Nicol (Booth, 63); Whittingham, Atherton, Humphreys (Trustfull, 83), Blinker (Briscoe, 63); Carbone; Hirst. Substitutes not used: Collins, Clarke (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset)
Attendance: 55,267 Man of the match: Cantona.Reuse content