Liberation day for the French enigma

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The Independent Online
Football

PHIL SHAW

According to the cod philosophy that makes Eric Cantona the Jean-Paul Sardine of football, he is not a number but a free man. After eight months as a prisoner of the stands, liberation for Manchester United's No 7 becomes official tomorrow.

Alex Ferguson has already confirmed that Cantona, whose aversion to sharing a bath has so often led him into deep water, will be plunged in from the start against Liverpool. The question now is whether the Frenchman's fitness and temperament allow him to finish the game; whether it will be le jour de gloire or ooh-aah au revoir.

What is certain is that the return of United's man for all reasons will release a flash-flood of emotions. Anfield, all mouth and Scousers, might have been an injudicious choice of venue for the comeback. But at Old Trafford, where rebuilding means there is no room for away fans, Cantona's only enemies will be Neil Ruddock et al and his own volatility.

Ruddock has been quoted as admitting that his provocative act last year, when he pulled down Cantona's trademark upturned collar, was premeditated. There would be no soft-pedalling this time either, the man known as "Razor" warned. In more statesmanlike mode, John Barnes claims there is "no way the players will attempt to wind Eric up".

The referee, David Elleray, has promised not to "duck the issue" if Cantona deserved to be sent off - he could hardly say otherwise - but noted he had cautioned him only once in a dozen matches. "He's not difficult to referee," the Harrow schoolmaster said, "because any disciplinary problems he's had have been related to opponents rather than the officials."

After a sudden dip in form of the kind which afflicts young players, United must hope Cantona is somewhere approaching his best. Victory could restore them to the Premiership summit - depending on the fate of the leaders Newcastle - although equally a Liverpool win might take them top.

Ironically, Cantona's reappearance may coincide with the absence of his compatriot, David Ginola, whom Kevin Keegan gives only a 50-50 chance of playing at Everton. The FA Cup holders will be turning out barely 65 hours after playing in Europe; Newcastle had the luxury of a blank midweek.

Defeat in their last away match, at Southampton, revived suspicions about Newcastle's ability to improve their away results to the extent required of champions. Keegan may thus view tomorrow's match as a watershed.

Arsenal can capture pole position, if only overnight, with a four-goal success at Chelsea. While four appears an improbable total for both sides together, it should be worth the price of a ticket to witness the battle of wits between Ruud Gullit and Dennis Bergkamp, who were last on the same pitch in a Milanese derby.

Leeds, who have mysteriously reversed the pattern of recent years by winning well away and struggling at home, urgently need to beat Sheffield Wednesday as Howard Wilkinson completes six years as manager since forsaking Hillsborough. Tony Yeboah may have answered the T-shirt trade's prayers in the wake of Cantona's exit, but only one of his 10 goals has come at Elland Road.

Another derby with a twist sees Coventry striving to put one over Aston Villa, the club who sacked their manager, Ron Atkinson. The first reunion, at Villa Park, ended in a goalless draw but a moral victory for Big Ron over Little, Brian.

Meanwhile, as Cantona prepares to come in from the cold, the heat is on for the team from across town. City visit United a fortnight today. This afternoon they take a record of one point out of 21 to Nottingham Forest, who made a bad start three years ago and ended up relegated. The difference is that no one is saying City are too good to go down.

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