Portrait of the artist as an old man

Eric Cantona give a less than regal performance

They wished that life imitated art at Old Trafford last night. If only Eric Cantona could have risen messiah-like as he does in Michael Browne's controversial painting. If only he could have risen to the occasion at all.

Beforehand Alex Ferguson had sensed that last night's match might be his captain's stage. "I know that in his own mind this is a big game for Eric," the Manchester United manager said. "He's always wanted to be successful at this level."

There was no doubting in which direction the home crowd was looking either. French tricoleurs were raised all along Sir Matt Busby Way, Cantona's face peering from most of them. On the T-shirts bearing Browne's work the motto was: "King Eric. The art of football."

When it came to the canvas of the football pitch, however, Cantona had the kingly bearing but little else. He arrived on the pitch carrying United's souvenir pennant like a field marshall's baton and then, like a First World War general, left the meaningful work to others. Nicky Butt worked prodigiously, Ronnie Johnsen ran himself into the turf, but what was missing was a flourish from the master. If it was art then it was minimalist.

There were flashes. An arrogant flick of his right heel to free Ronny Johnsen, a blur of his feet to win himself space to cross to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but they were beams of light in the gloom that descended on Old Trafford as soon as Lars Ricken put Dortmund ahead.

The problem, which has been apparent in the Premiership this season, is that Cantona's pace is going. In England his speed of thought and his reputation have prolonged his aura but at European level, the swiftness and crispness of the tackling curb him to the point of anonymity.

A run in the opening seconds of the second half was typical. Cantona cut in from the left, intent oozing from him. He dummied to pass, Ricken was half shaken off but Paul Lambert flicked the ball from the Frenchman's feet as if it was tackling practice. Like the ancien regime on the eve of the French Revolution there was more show than substance.

Yet if you had to pick a moment that epitomised his night then the moment Andy Cole spun down the right of the area after 26 minutes and flashed a shot across the German six-yard box, was it. Stefan Klos deflected the ball which arrived at Cantona's feet. The net was empty but for the prone figure of Jurgen Kohler, who stuck out a foot in hope rather than expectation. Somehow Cantona managed to hit it.

The words that Michel Platini was reported as saying came to mind. "He is a big man in small games and a small man in big games," he commented on his compatriot. Last night he was a diminished figure, so slight in fact that Cole towered above him. You never expected to read that.

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