Football: Cantona's galling prospect

Phil Shaw considers the role of three Frenchmen whose joie de vivre will influence the top of the Premiership today
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The Independent Online
Much as his compatriots once stormed the Bastille for a useful away win, Arsene Wenger will today be striving to take Manchester United's Old Trafford fortress and further undermine Eric Cantona's position as the English game's most influential Frenchman.

The differences between United's captain and the new Arsenal manager expose national stereotyping as the nonsense it is. While the price of Cantona's creativity is often a volatility which has reared its unacceptable head again of late, Wenger has brought a cultured, almost scientific approach to Highbury.

Arsenal's prospects of inflicting a fifth successive defeat on the champions may hinge on their ability to implement his game plan amid the frenzy of a packed stadium. Similarly, it will be intriguing to see whether Alex Ferguson has used the hiatus caused by an international weekend to revamp United's tactics, especially in terms of getting more from their troubled talisman.

Wenger's track record and personality, not to mention the fact that he inherited the country's meanest defence, make it improbable that he will come out with all Gunners blazing. When he promised this week to attack, he was referring to those who sought to smear his private life. His policy this afternoon is likely to be one of counter- attack.

The struggle for supremacy between Cantona and another enfant de la patrie, Patrick Vieira, could be crucial. If Cantona and Wenger represent wildly contrasting strands of Gallic character, the long- striding Vieira seems blessed with the best of both worlds.

"He's highly motivated and fights for every ball," Wenger says, "but he also plays very good passes."

Ferguson is ready to recall Ryan Giggs, who has made only a brief appearance as substitute since a calf injury in September. Roy Keane is suspended, which reduces United's options for tracking Vieira's surges between the penalty areas, but may be just as well given his flawed temperament and the fractious history of this fixture. The match will be beamed back to London for a closed- circuit television showing before the North Bank.

The "House Full" signs will also be posted at Newcastle and Leeds. The Premiership pace- setters, who are confident that Alan Shearer will have recovered from his groin operation in time to return at Chelsea next weekend, take on West Ham in search of a ninth victory in 10 games. The Hammers' squad are to undergo special visual tests at an Essex opticians on Monday; if Newcastle can again stoke up their crowd, they may need their ears examined too.

The visit of Liverpool, fourth from top, to Leeds, fourth from bottom and with the division's most disillusioned fans, according to a new survey, is of critical importance to both clubs. Leeds are being linked with everyone from teenaged tiros at Tranmere to Swiss centre-backs in Sardinia, yet George Graham again sends out a side comprised of Howard Wilkinson's signings.

Ian Rush, stuck in the worst goalless streak of his career, is likely to have to break his duck from his new, makeshift role on the right of midfield. "I've been looking forward to this match ever since I left Anfield," he said. "It'll be a special occasion, but also a strange one for me."

Humiliated by the basement club, Blackburn, in their last League outing, Liverpool are only too aware that their black November a year ago meant they were always fighting to make up lost ground. The possibility of Jamie Redknapp's being left out for Patrik Berger is sure to alert those who may feel better able to offer a regular place.

The 13-day break since their first success denied Blackburn the opportunity to sustain their momentum. Nor would they have chosen to resume against Chelsea, who must decide whether to stay with the team who won at Old Trafford or give Gianfranco Zola his first taste of the British hurly- burly.

It is a safe bet that Zola, newly arrived from Parma, was unfamiliar with the name of the caretaker manager at Ewood Park. However, Tony Parkes was asked yesterday by Robert Coar, the Blackburn chairman, to continue in the job even though he does not want it on a permanent basis.

"He'll stay in control as he has for the past three weeks, and neither Tony nor the players have any problems with this," Coar said, in what sounded ominously like the dreaded vote of confidence.