A telling influence in the last two title run-ins, Eric Cantona's reappearance after a five-match suspension is of paramount importance to United, who have been more distress flare than red flair without the flamboyant Frenchman.
During his exile, the leaders have lost two of their three Premiership matches, including a defeat to Blackburn which allowed their Lancashire rivals to draw alongside them, and United needed two attempts to vanquish a spirited Oldham in the FA Cup. 'We have Eric back and that will make a big difference,' Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. 'He will calm us down a lot.'
It was Cantona's inability to remain calm that precipitated his enforced break, a series of unwise challenges bringing successive dismissals and keeping T-shirt manufacturers across the country working overtime on tops proclaiming 'Fergie's Red Card Army - Go Marching Off'. He even faces a further sanction after his comments about Vic Callow, the referee who gave him first go at Highbury's showers; Cantona said Callow 'is a small man . . . and I don't think he will grow up' - an opinion the FA does not share. Cantona has until Tuesday to provide a satisfactory explanation; otherwise he faces a misconduct charge.
But past and possible future absences will be forgotten at 5pm (yes, another Skyjacking) today as Cantona, after three weeks' reflection and a rigorous training programme devised by Brian Kidd, bounds back as the newly elected players' Player of the Year.
The Blue half of Manchester need no warning of Cantona's menace, the No 7 with the upturned collar having stage-managed United's winning recovery from a two-goal deficit at Maine Road in November.
With his ability to change and lengthen angles of attack, Cantona, who replaces Brian McClair, can raise United from the good to the great. As important as the goals (20) and guile (limitless) he brings is his impact on Ryan Giggs, the most gifted young player of his generation whose recent form has been sporadic at best. With Cantona restored, the expectations of producing the unexpected will be removed from Giggs's frail shoulders - and the sight of Giggs, unbridled by pressure, taking on opponents is the tonic the English and Welsh games need. If Giggs, Cantona and Co prise City apart, which is certainly not guaranteed, victory would take them clear - a margin Blackburn can recover against Queen's Park Rangers at Ewood Park tomorrow.
City, though, as they have proved in a seven-match unbeaten run, are no pushovers and their new-found blend of commitment and creativity, embodied in the midfield partnership of McMahon and David Rocastle, will insure against any collapse, particularly as another point should end any fear of falling.
City's climb away from danger has caused further problems for the other clubs marooned at the wrong end of the table. Tottenham Hotspur have enjoyed a panoply of great moments but today, for the visit of injury-depleted Southampton, they face one of their most important games. Defeat by the Saints - Spurs have not experienced a League success at White Hart Lane in six months - and an unlikely victory for Oldham at Newcastle United would drag Ossie Ardiles's side down into the bottom three.
Oldham have two games in hand, although they will not have been pleased by the concertinaed climax to their season of three games in five days. But their task at St James' appears mammoth. Newcastle are determined to hold on to third place as that could lead to a Uefa Cup place - either by United winning the Cup and Blackburn the League or England being awarded another European berth, courtesy of turmoil in the former Yugoslavia. Not bad going for a newly-promoted club.
The remarkable Andy Cole could give the Toon Army an extra song to sing: if the England squad player scores his 40th goal of the season, he will break the club record held by Hughie Gallacher and George Robledo.
Swindon Town, who followed Newcastle up last summer, will return to the Football League if they fail to beat Wimbledon. Crystal Palace, already ensured of a prompt restoration to the elite, can succeed Newcastle as First Division champions if they overcome their bogy team, Barnsley, and Nottingham Forest falter against West Brom tomorrow. Success in the Premiership may depend on the permanent recruiting of an eager Paul Stewart, whose on-loan heroics end today.
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