Football / Kick-Off '94-95: Fleeting appearance for Cantona as curtain rises: United to lose their maverick Frenchman to three-match suspension after tomorrow's Charity Shield. Phil Shaw reports

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ERIC CANTONA'S official bonjour to the new season - for Manchester United in tomorrow's Charity Shield match against Blackburn Rovers at Wembley - will also be his au revoir until Wimbledon visit Old Trafford on the final day of the month.

The Football Association yesterday announced that the Players' Player of the Year had been suspended for the first three games of United's title defence following his dismissal for a two-footed lunge during a glorified friendly against Rangers in Glasgow a week ago today. Cantona will miss the opening-day visit of Queen's Park Rangers, as well as trips to Nottingham Forest and Tottenham.

The Frenchman's third sending-off this year will also cost him a club fine of two weeks' wages, thought to total pounds 20,000. His latest ban brings to 12 the number of United fixtures from which he has been suspended during the past 10 months, and whatever else happens at Wembley, Alex Ferguson will doubtless be hoping his most influential performer does not become an early victim of the new refereeing clampdown.

After the summer United have endured since winning the Double, Ferguson might have preferred a softer option than the taking on the team who pursued them so doggedly last season. The twin powers tangling beneath the twin towers is, on paper, an entertaining curtain-raiser to a campaign in which the Premiership must build on the feelgood factor generated during the World Cup. It is just that United may not be quite ready to take centre stage.

Ferguson's difficulties began when Ireland's Roy Keane and Denis Irwin had to be told to sit out the start of the season rather than risk being burned out by autumn. Then Chris Sutton made it clear he was not interested in joining United, narrowing his choice down to Arsenal or Blackburn.

No sooner had word leaked out that Paul Ince was unhappy with his new contract, which he has yet to sign, than Cantona had his latest rush of blood. As if all this were not bad enough, United produced unconvincing pre-season form in Ireland and Scotland. Such fixtures are a poor guide to prospects, yet it is safe to assume Ferguson would have chosen neither the high-profile setting nor such formidable opponents six days before the Premiership kick-off.

Blackburn are also searching for form. Their pivotal players, David Batty and Alan Shearer, are absent because of injury and illness respectively. Such has been the dearth of fit strikers that Kenny Dalglish made a comeback - aged 43 - in Scotland last week.

'That was enforced, not intentional,' Dalglish said. 'We had nobody else and it was just an accident . . . nearly a fatal one]'

Tomorrow, with the manager back in civvies, the spotlight will fall on Sutton, provided he has recovered from a viral complaint. The pounds 5m striker is sure to suffer the 'greedy' taunts to which Shearer was subjected after spurning Old Trafford. Blackburn fans are in turn likely to reserve their wrath for David May, the defender who has defected to United.

Whether this undercurrent of acrimony - and the ill feeling between Ferguson and Dalglish manifest in the latter's Liverpool days - transmits itself to the teams is another matter. There is no love lost between United and Arsenal, yet they managed an entertaining, incident-free draw a year ago.

Cantona - a hat-trick for Leeds against Liverpool in the previous year's Shield - did not do himself justice on three visits to Wembley last season. The same is true of United in general, and bearing in mind that they also conceded four points to Blackburn, they will be keen to redress the balance.

Cantona and Sutton, for different reasons, will be striving to impress. Neither manager, however, will read too much into the result. Rather than the start of hostilities, tomorrow represents the final shots in the phoney war preceeding them.