RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL

Glenn Moore sets the scene for arguably the most eagerly awaited comeback the English game has known
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Alex Ferguson was asked this week if there was ever any doubt that Cantona would not go straight into the Manchester United team for tomorrow's match with Liverpool. "Only if we had won our first 10 games," he replied.

That was never very likely. Although United lie second in the Premiership, having done better than most people expected, they are not ready to manage without Cantona yet.

Twice in their last four matches they have failed to score and, this week, United needed a goal by their goalkeeper to salvage their unbeaten European home record, but not victory, against Volgograd.

This weakness in front of goal has, admittedly, been exacerbated by the departure of Andrei Kanchelskis and Andy Cole's injury problems. But it has also brought back unhappy memories.

In the season and a bit before Cantona's arrival at Old Trafford in November 1992 - during which they had lost the title to Leeds - Manchester United had averaged 1.3 goals per game. Since the Frenchman's arrival they have scored at more than two. The only time they have dipped below that average was during his absences last year - and that is despite the freak nine- goal haul against Ipswich.

For all the talent of Ryan Giggs, Lee Sharpe and Paul Scholes, Cantona remains the creative key to the side. Last season, after he was suspended, United suffered three goalless home draws. A goal in any of them could have given them the title. Ferguson remains convinced Cantona's presence would have provided one.

His confidence is rooted in fact. Cantona has scored 47 goals in 95 matches for United, an impressive record even before his goal-making abilities are added to the account. It is reflected in results. In nearly three years at Old Trafford he has only finished on the losing side eight times in 95 games. In that time he has missed a staggering 63 matches, mainly through various suspensions. United have lost 12 of them, more than twice the ratio with Cantona in the side.

It is a formidable record and there is a danger of United feeling dependent on him. Ferguson recognises this and compares it to the Bryan Robson syndrome he encountered when he arrived at the club.

"There was a feeling that we could not do anything without him. There is a danger of that with Cantona but I think we have overcome it in some ways, we did extremely well to get as close as we did last year. We have a lot of important players but, like Robbo, when Cantona is around you want him in, he can have a special influence on the field.

The other aspect of this concentration on one individual is that team- mates come to resent it. Paul Ince is one player who may have felt too much attention was being lavished on Cantona. However, one suspects the remaining United players have a more acute sense of their respective abilities.

The supporters certainly do. United could have sold out the ground many times over but Old Trafford's current reduced capacity is a blessing in disguise. Because of re-building there will be no away fans at either today's match, or the Manchester derby in a fortnight's time.

There are rarely problems at Old Trafford anyway, it is away from home that Cantona's excesses have all taken place. United have plans for increased security at away grounds but they are limited in what they can do. Ken Ramsden, the club's press officer, said they will tailor security to venues and fixtures but admits, "our security men can hardly run up and down the pitch with him. Nor can they sit in the dug-out".

On-pitch "minding" is a problem. The bulk of United's experienced players are in defensive positions - Roy Keane is the strongest personality ahead of the back-four but he is hardly the ideal peacemaker. Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the players' union, has asked opponents to respect him but it is a vain hope. When a player's place in the team, or his club's in the Premiership, is at stake, he will use any weapon he can. Already Neil Ruddock, who provoked Cantona by pulling down his collar last year, is talking of a "new trick" for tomorrow.

The solution lies with Cantona himself. Ferguson has pledged to talk to him more often, but even he can only make an educated guess at what is going on in the Frenchman's mind. The rest of us have even less idea.

The new Nike advertisement hardly smacks of contrition. In it he says "I have an apology to make." Then he apologies for only scoring once in a 5-0 win (over Manchester City); for missing a goal by inches against Newcastle; and for not completing a hat-trick in the 1994 FA Cup final. It is clever, but not intelligent. However, it all adds to a personality cult that is beginning to dwarf both the player and the club.

Now it is time for Cantona to re-emerge. Ferguson is confident that he will show no ill-effects of his long lay-off. "His ability to be in space, to open defences; his composure and assurance on the ball; these things do not vanish," said Ferguson. "He was the catalyst for our first championship season and he can have an immediate impact again. He can always produce something in a tight game. That is where we will benefit from his presence most."

A keen trainer he looks fit, if not match-fit. If he survives Sunday's match - in body and mind - he will travel to York on Tuesday, where United attempt to rescue their Coca-Cola Cup campaign, then play Leeds in the reserves before the derby a fortnight tomorrow.

All but the York game is at home. However, it is that type of match in which he is most likely to explode. Apart from the Arsenal dismissal (which is widely regarded as unfortunate), he has always been sent off for incidents involving players and teams he would regard as inferior.

Ferguson believes it springs from a sense of injustice, though frustration - as much with himself as others - may be at least as big a motive. In the official club video, "Eric the King", Cantona speaks of his "perfectionism." "It is a creed. I need it. It is a question of character, of personal pride."

This pride in his performance, his constant quest for self-improvement, is one of several areas in which he has been influential in the development of the young players around him. One of them will be dropped to make way for him but all, even Scholes when he plays, should be lifted by his presence. With Cole coming back United could go on to to claim their third title in four years.

But so much depends on Cantona. Alan Hansen is among the many who believe another explosion is inevitable. If it comes the impact would be devastating, on himself, the club and the game. But can he curb his temperament without curbing his game? In the past he has said, "I have tried to correct myself and lost my game."

On Thursday it was apparently revealed that he had "found a solution" to his faults. "Nobody knows about it and I can't explain it. People will have to notice it for themselves," he was quoted as saying. Unfortunately, these remarks were taken not from a recent interview, but from the "Eric the King" video. The tape was released for the Christmas market - last Christmas, several weeks before he was sent off at Selhurst Park and leapt, studs first, into the chest of Matthew Simmons.

As solutions go it was not a very successful one. With a man of Cantona's volatility there probably is no solution. It seems Cantona is about to join Paul Merson, another hopefully reformed soccer sinner, in taking one day at a time.

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