Larsson can extend stay at United 'if he wants to'

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It was always when, not if, the question of Henrik Larsson extending his Old Trafford career would come to the fore, but even Manchester United were pleasantly surprised at the speed and source of the debate yesterday when the striker's Swedish employers, Helsingborg, admitted the 35-year-old could feature in Sir Alex Ferguson's plans until the end of the season.

One game, one goal and one performance exuding intelligence is all it has taken for the "Larsson Must Stay" bandwagon to roll off the blocks, with the veteran's contribution in the 2-1 FA Cup win over Aston Villa prompting the Helsingborg coach Stuart Baxter to interrupt his holiday in Dubai to declare; "He would appear to have vindicated the whole deal."

That unique deal, which originated in a discussion between Baxter and friend Jim Lawler, the United chief scout, in early November, saw the former Celtic and Barcelona favourite agree to join Ferguson for a 10-week loan period that coincided with the pre-season in Sweden and then return to his hometown club on 12 March.

Although Ferguson and Larsson have repeatedly insisted there is no prospect of an extension - the striker continued to diffuse the issue yesterday when he stated: "It is all ifs and I am just taking one match at a time," - it is inconceivable that United will not attempt to keep the Swede for their Premiership and Champions' League pursuit. To that end, the admission by Baxter and Helsingborg chairman Stig-Inge Fredin that Larsson can stay until May if he wishes will not have been lost on the Old Trafford hierarchy.

"It is a matter for our board but if Manchester United and Henrik have special wishes then of course we are going to listen," Fredin said. "It's up to Henrik. If he wants to stay then we'll open that discussion with United. We will not stand in his way. However, as long as nothing new is on the cards, there's no reason to speculate. At this point we are assuming that Henrik will be back on 12 March."

It was only before Christmas that Ferguson insisted United would have to play fair by Helsingborg and allow their prized asset to return for the start of the Swedish season. "We wouldn't want to intrude on Helsingborg's ambitions," he said. "They have been very fair and we have to return that favour."

However, it is evident the final say belongs to Larsson and United are expected to open negotiations with Helsingborg about an extension - which will involve a nominal fee - in due course.

"We are in a world where we are not really able to force Henrik back," Baxter said. "Sweden being Sweden they would probably think of the person and not the footballer. There would be a discussion between Henrik and the club but he has given us no indication this is any more than the agreement we have.

"When he came back it was so he could get his family established in Sweden during the last two years of his career. The attraction of Manchester United was a short-term deal. If that has changed where an extension would mean extra finance for the club that's very nice, but we have still got to try to make a team. But I am going to try to not worry about it. We knew this situation might happen when we did the deal. It is Manchester United, after all, not Bristol Rovers."