Rio's reassuring presence encourages United's conspiracy theorists

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According to a French saying the absent are always wrong but in sport, they are invariably right.

According to a French saying the absent are always wrong but in sport, they are invariably right.

Eric Cantona would have performed sublimely in every one of the matches he missed in the closing months of the 1994-5 season. Every ball of Test cricket Graham Gooch was denied for captaining a rebel England side in South Africa 22 years ago would have been ruthlessly dealt with. Rio Ferdinand's positioning throughout his eight-month suspension for forgetting a drugs test was forever faultless. As Liverpool returned to Merseyside along the East Lancashire Road, Gérard Houllier's victories over Manchester United would have been fondly recalled. The missing are always lost heroes.

The folklore will state that Ferdinand returned and Manchester United produced their most emphatic display since summoning up a final act of will from a disintegrating season to overcome Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final. It will merely add to Sir Alex Ferguson's simplistic certainty that Ferdinand's suspension was an FA inspired slice of injustice that effectively denied him the championship. First, when he limped off at Molineux, 13th when he returned at Old Trafford last night; what more is there left to say?

Ferdinand did not quite receive a hero's welcome but then what he did was in no way heroic. At least Cantona had launched himself at a particularly unpleasant Crystal Palace fan who had rushed down to the advertising hoardings to mouth obscenities. Ferdinand's comeback was "celebrated" by those responsible for United's pre-match entertainment with a rendition of "Rio" by Duran Duran, a song whose video was famous for depicting conspicuous consumption at a time when riots were setting Brixton and Toxteth ablaze. For a man who chose to go shopping at Harvey Nichols rather than take a drugs test, this was somehow appropriate.

Two centre-halves did score but, unromantically, it was Mikaël Silvestre, whose confidence was supposed to have been shredded in Lyon, who twice took advantage of Liverpool defending that was as sloppy as it ever was under Roy Evans, and John O'Shea, who stabbed into his own net.

Ferdinand's pace and positional sense were undimmed and served him well. His first challenge was a crude swipe at Luis Garcia that might have earned him a booking, but if you had to pick a centre-half who had not kicked a ball in anger for eight months, he would have been wearing a Liverpool shirt.

If Ferdinand could see much through the swirl of Lancashire rain, it must have looked a very different side to the one he left. Then, Ferguson had been so short of defenders that an unfit Wes Brown was rushed back with dismal results. Last night he fielded five centre-backs and cast Tim Howard into the freezing darkness that comes with being a third-choice goalkeeper. Ferdinand lost his place, the chance of the European Championship and a lot of respect but, unlike Howard, he never lost Ferguson's confidence.