FOOTBALL: Le rouge rogue reclaims his crown

Ian Ridley hails the imperious gall of United's Gallic footballing genius
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The Independent Online
Here's the plot. We'll have him laying on a goal after 67 seconds, then rallying his team after they've been outplayed and equalising with a penalty, before scoring the winning goal in the last minute. No you're right. We'll save the last-minute winner for another episode. Don't want to give them too much too soon.

Thus did the actor out on loan, as one of his heroes, Jim Morrison, once sang, return to centre stage after eight months of suspense and suspension. Curiously he seems, during that time, to have become an even better player, such is the stoking of the legend, but this was good enough. All the touches and flicks were there, if a little rusty. The eye for an opening remains that of a footballing eagle.

"He has done well," Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, said. "He was tired at the end of it but he can be well pleased with his performance and his stamina. It's a credit to his preparation and how he looks after himself."

Most were drained at the end of an emotionally exhausting day. It began hours before the kick-off, with Sir Matt Busby Way throbbing with buyers and sellers of inventive merchandise: red and white confetti, French tricolours. His autobiography was going for only pounds 5 but this had less to do with lack of popularity or the end of the Net Book Agreement; more that everyone had it already.

On that famous forecourt underneath the Munich memorial some wore onions round their necks, berets on their heads. Here could be found his father, Albert, signing autographs, after a demanding two-day drive from Marseille, necessitated by his fear of flying.

Inside it was a love-in attended by 34,934, some of whom were not journalists. Sadly few from Liverpool had obtained tickets. They played the music from the Magnificent Seven for him, "Welcome Home" and "I Want You Back" by, appropriately, Take That. He entered, last in line and tracked by his own TV camera, to the theme from Rocky and joined the other players in holding aloft a banner saying: "Let's kick racism out of football. Respect all fans." All except Matthew Simmons, Old Trafford was thinking.

Soon there was the cross for the goal but United then stood back in satisfaction for an hour, his cushioned passes and positional astuteness not used well enough, until the penalty, stroked home with the customary aplomb. Any worries about him taking it? "Who was going to get it off of him?" Ferguson said.

There was never any danger of trouble involving him, with uncharacteristic best-behaviour tackling prevailing; it was the tamest North-west derby he could remember, said Ferguson. Even with Neil Ruddock in opposition, though one tangle had him throwing his arms up at him mockingly, even with a player on the field - in footballing terms the game's star - called Fowler, he was always in control. Chelsea in three weeks' time could be the first real test.

Before then, United have three goals to try and retrieve at York tomorrow night. Will he be risked? "I'm saying to myself... I wonder," Ferguson said. He may be pondering the words of a T-shirt on sale: "Rage is temporary, class is permanent."