Football: Cantona's wand guides United to the brink: As Old Trafford awaits its first title since 1967, Joe Lovejoy hails the dashing Gallic knight leading the charge

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IN THE minds of many it was settled three weeks ago, when a substitute referee brought a whole new meaning to the phrase extra time, but Manchester United have had rude acquaintance with the importance of counting points before chickens, and will be happy to leave the final reckoning to Monday night.

The inaugural Premier League title could be won and lost tomorrow, of course, in the event of Aston Villa failing to beat Oldham at home. A draw there would effectively crown United as champions with two games to spare, courtesy of their vastly superior goal difference.

Even if Villa see off their relegation-threatened opponents, which must be the banker bet, it will probably serve only to set the stage for the biggest knees-up Old Trafford has known since George was Best.

If United beat Blackburn on Monday it is all over, regardless of what happens in the final round of matches the following Sunday. What a fitting end that would be to nine months of hype and interference from the Sky screamers - a split-screen showing of a fait accompli.

United will want it that way for a whole host of reasons, the desire to share the moment of triumph with their home crowd second only to a determination not to leave anything to chance in a horribly hazardous final fixture.

If the outcome is still in doubt eight days hence, the Holy Grail they have pursued these last 26 years could yet elude them. Only mug punters bet against Wimbledon at home, and the greatest party-poopers of them all would dearly love to strike yet another blow for the have-nots, and torpedo the elitists' flagship.

The claret-and-blue half of Birmingham will beg to differ, but it would be a pity if it came to that. United have played football the way it was meant to be played and, if only by a few percentage points, have been the most consistently attractive team in the country. It would send out the wrong signals if they were to be denied by the high priests of the scuffling game.

The most encouraging aspect of a renascent season has been the prosperity of three clubs who have remained true to their purist principles while increasing numbers were falling prey to the long ball heresy.

Poor old Nottingham Forest suffered mortal - some would say self- inflicted - wounds, but United, Villa and Norwich City took up the standard for those prepared to fight the good fight, and led from the front with courage and panache. Norwich are out of it now, but would have made novel, and welcome, champions.

Instead, it looks like United, and it would be a hard man who begrudged them after so many years of toil and frustration. Many do resent their wealth and support but, at a time when England's clubs are struggling to regain their old pre-eminence in Europe, there is something to be said for having the biggest, the most charismatic and yes, the best, on representative duty in the European Cup.

Villans everywhere will be rushing for the Basildon Bond to point out that United hardly covered the nation in reflected glory this season, when they were tipped out of the Uefa Cup in the first round. True, but that was 1992 BC. Before Cantona.

Not too many people acclaimed it as such at the time, when he was variously described as a maverick or a dilettante, but the recruitment of France's not so terrible enfant was a masterstroke. The pounds 1m Alex Ferguson paid Leeds was petite biere for a player who is the obvious difference when comparing the United of this year to last. Apart from the goals he has scored himself - and nine in 19 league appearances has been a substantial contribution - he has also eased the burden on Mark Hughes, who, with 15 in 39 games, needs two more to equal his most prolific season, 1985-86.

Hughes sees Cantona and United as a marriage made in heaven, and is unstinting in his appreciation of the foil he has needed for so long. The strutting Parisian had turned pretty football into winning football, he said. In so doing, he was advancing the cause of the domestic game as a whole.

Hughes explained: 'It really is important to Manchester United to play the game the way it should be played. We like to believe we are carrying the flag for the right type of football. In the past few years, strength and brute force have taken hold, and the game here has suffered. The long ball has held our development back.

'This season, United have played it the right way, with two wingers and Eric supporting me as a second striker. To be fair, Villa and Norwich have done well playing the same way, and we must hope that seeing the three of us dominate will persuade others to change their approach.

'People will say we are only playing this way because it has put us on top of the table, but Manchester United have always tried to play like that. Attractive, attacking football is a tradition here. It hasn't always come off in the past, but the club stuck to their principles through the hard times, and its paying off now.'

Cantona was a player in those very best traditions, Hughes felt. 'This is the ideal stage for Eric. He's a very emotional player, lifted by atmosphere, and grounds don't come much more emotional than Old Trafford. He's got a great rapport with the fans, they love him here, and he seems to revel in the attention.'

What was he like as a person? 'I don't really know. We don't talk much because his English is so dodgy, but football is an international language, and we get by on a nod and a wink. The really important thing is that we understand each other perfectly out on the pitch.

'He has been important for me. This has been my best season for seven years, and that alone shows that our partnership is working. He takes a lot of pressure off me. Last season, I was playing up there on my own, and struggling at times, but with Eric up there too, it broadens our attack. The central defenders have got someone else to worry about.'

Like all gifted ball players, Cantona can be greedy and irritatingly self-indulgent, but Hughes, like Ferguson, has learned to take the rough in the knowledge that something gorgeously smooth will come along in handsome compensation. 'Yes, he loves his flicks and feints, and when they don't come off he gets criticised, but when his tricks work they create chances. His creative ability has been very significant this season. He has helped to make us more creative, less predictable. We have definitely been a better side since he arrived.'

Paddy Crerand, one of the heroes of 1967, follows his heirs everywhere, and is even more complimentary. 'When Eric came, I thought he was a panic buy. I was wrong. Cantona has been the brain, the greatest difference from last season, when United collapsed. Alex has never made a better signing. He has won them the title.'

Not yet he hasn't, but the bubbly from his back yard is on ice for Monday. It could be some party.

(Photograph omitted)