Ferguson finally gets chance with a genuine great

Henrik Larsson has thrived at the highest levels, writes Nick Harris. Even in the twilight of his career, he could play a decisive role at Old Trafford
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The Independent Online

Had Alex Ferguson succeeded in signing Henrik Larsson from Celtic at the first time of asking in 1999, the Swedish striker would almost certainly have claimed entry to the small pantheon of truly great foreign players in the history of the English game. His astonishing body of work as a professional player - and not just his sackloads of goals - allows him to be placed comfortably on a par with Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola and Thierry Henry.

Without question he is by the far the best foreign player Scotland has ever seen. And the best Swedish player too, for that matter, at least in the last 50 years. And while, at 35, and with only a three-month loan spell as a back-up frontman at Old Trafford guaranteed, his impact in the Premiership will be, by definition, limited, the notion that he was so prolific in his peak years because he "only played in Scotland" has been proved to be nonsense. Just ask a Barcelona fan, or Arsenal fan, or even Henry, a man supremely equipped to judge pace, poise, touch and clinical finishing.

When Larsson came on to the pitch as a 61st-minute substitute in the Champions' League final in May, Arsenal were winning 1-0. Twenty minutes later Barça were 2-1 up and on their way to the trophy. That was down to Larsson. First he flicked a defender's nightmare of a ball to open space for Samuel Eto'o to score. Another Midas touch fed Juliano Belletti for the clincher. Said Henry afterwards: "Everyone was talking about Ronaldinho before the game. I didn't see him today and I didn't see Eto'o. Henrik Larsson made the difference by setting up two goals. That was the key."

Larsson's contribution at the Nou Camp in two seasons (2004-06) was not just about that one game. In a period when Barça were the most thrilling side in Europe, his impact in his first year was limited due to injury (11 league appearances, three goals) but in his second season he played 28 times and scored 10. Barça, of course, won back-to-back titles. Larsson rounded off last season by going to the World Cup in Germany, where he scored against England in the 2-2 group-stage draw before Sweden were knocked out by the hosts in the last 16.

It was at the 1994 World Cup that he first came to international prominence, as a 22-year-old in dreadlocks who bagged the winning penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out against Romania. There was no shame in losing in the semis to the eventual champions, Brazil, and Larsson then scored in the 4-0 victory against Bulgaria that handed Sweden third place in the tournament.

At this stage he had been a Feyenoord player for one year, having moved from his home-town club Helsingborg, where he had scored 50 goals in 56 games in two years. In 1997, Celtic's then manager, Wim Jansen, paid £650,000 to take him to Glasgow, where over the next seven years he became a god in green.

Statistics alone do not tell the whole story but embellish the legend. He scored a mere 16 league goals in his first season but they were enough to help Celtic to take the title and, more importantly, wrest it back from Rangers, who were prevented from taking 10 in a row.

In 1998-99, Larsson scored 29 league goals to be the division's top scorer. In fact, he was the leading scorer in Scotland every year he was there apart from that first season and 1999-2000, a campaign cruelly curtailed by the horrific double break to his leg sustained against Lyon in Europe in October 1999. Ferguson had tried to sign him for United earlier that year but had his advances spurned.

When Larsson recovered, he was not just strong in the broken places, but stronger than ever. His domestic league tallies in the next four seasons were 35 goals (enough for the Golden Boot of Europe award in a year when he scored 53 times in all competitions), 29 goals, 28 goals and 30 goals.

In all, he scored 242 times for Celtic in 315 games, putting him third in Celtic's all-time list in all competitions. He helped Celtic to four Scottish league titles, two Scottish Cups and two League Cups, and in 2002 was voted into a Celtic supporters' all-time XI (alongside 10 Scots including Kenny Dalglish and Jimmy Johnstone).

As for that hoary old chestnut about easy pickings in Scotland, he scored 36 times in 93 games for Sweden, including at three World Cups and two European Championships. He scored more goals in Europe for Celtic than any player for any Scottish club in Europe in history.

He also scored twice - with two excellent headers - in the 2003 Uefa Cup final against Jose Mourinho's Porto. And, unlike Henry, he is a Champions' League winner.

Henrik the Incredible: A career in goals

* HELSINGBORG (SWE)

1992-1993 56 matches, 50 goals. Games per goal: 1.12

* FEYENOORD (NETH)

1993-1997 101 matches, 26 goals. Games per goal: 3.9

* CELTIC (SCO)

1997-2004 315 matches, 242 goals. Games per goal: 1.3

* BARCELONA (SP)

2004-2006 39 matches, 13 goals. Games per goal: 3

* HELSINGBORG

2006 14 matches, 8 goals. Games per goal: 1.75

* SWEDEN

1993-2006 93 matches, 36 goals. Games per goal: 2.58

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