Talismen in the twilight zone

For Eric Cantona and John Barnes, influence is a declining power. Ian Ridley fears time may be running out
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Eric Cantona stood in the players' tunnel at Old Trafford contemplating the Borussia Dortmund defeat. "We have to do more," he said, "but I don't know what." John Barnes found out what Liverpool feel they have to do; he was left out of the match against Paris St Germain.

For one man and his club the issue concerns moving to the next level, from domestic dominance to European excellence; for the other and his, it is about crossing the divide from objects of admiration to winners. By next season, both talismanic figures could find that their clubs are seeking to achieve the aims if not without them, certainly less regularly dependent on their hitherto profound influence.

Like his Liverpool counterpart Roy Evans, the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has been talking about the future in the wake of European exit, almost echoing words. "We will try to improve our side just a little bit to get that final push next year," he said. "If we can improve five per cent, that's what I will try to do. Some players will mature and improve, some areas I will look at."

Was there significance for Cantona, you could only wonder, when Ferguson went on to allude to the very model of a modern European football team? "Every club in Europe has to assess how they can get better," he said. "Juventus won the Cup last year and sold two players."

They have clearly become more mobile and vigorous with Alen Boksic and Christian Vieri replacing players as revered and established as Cantona in Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli. In Juve's midweek win over Ajax came further evidence of Zinedine Zidane's waxing, which throws in further relief his fellow Frenchman's waning.

Over at Anfield there was more obvious significance in Evans omitting Barnes from the Liverpool line-up. Once a silky, fluent winger in their best team of the last decade, he was forced by serious injury to rethink his role and Evans duly built a team, and a tempo, around his thoughtful, understated but influential passing. Now that tempo has become painfully slow. As much was emphasised as soon as it was quickened against Paris St Germain and brave victory, if overall defeat, resulted.

For United it is more about rhythm. Cantona retains the capacity, at Premiership level at least, for the perceptive pass and odd elegant goal. Too much is now being asked of David Beckham, however, with Cantona less and less inclined to go looking for the ball, let alone help in winning it back. The result is that United can get into staccato mode, rather than show the fluency of movement as a team more usually associated with them.

The quality that sets United apart from their domestic brethren, which Milan and now Juventus have also demonstrated, is a togetherness and toughness allied to talent and technique. Beckham is expected to tackle competitively as well as spray the 40-yard ball. An exception now seems to be made for Cantona, however, and no longer can a team in Europe carry only a fitful contributor. Zidane works and plays.

Old Trafford seems to have sensed the eclipsing of its anti-hero without quite yet daring to speak its name. The singing of "Ooh Aah Eric Cantona" sounded half-hearted against Borussia as he revealed himself chief culprit in the missing of chances - the night Manchester United "forgot to score goals", as the Borussia coach Ottmar Hitzfeld put it.

It went deeper than that, but not much as, encouragingly for development, United were clearly not outplayed nor shown wanting for skill or technique, as was also the case with Liverpool 24 hours later. The short-term semi- final pain may have been for long-term final gain.

United's defeat was to do with composure deserting players in front of goal when better quality defenders than the Premiership can offer either baulk cannily or menace with their near presence. That and the missing swagger of confidence that is second nature in the Premiership and that will surely be more evident in Europe next season thanks to this one's experiences.

It is said that the remuneration committee of Manchester United plc are beginning to question Cantona's declining influence, too; that the 31- year-old's contract will not be extended beyond the year it still has to run. It would be a surprise if their views were the prevalent ones at the club, however.

Such is the power within Old Trafford that Ferguson has won and deserved for himself over the last 10 years that any decision will surely be his. It could be that Cantona sees out the contract, still a force on training ground and in Premiership, before Ferguson helps arrange for him as golden handshake a final lucrative contract elsewhere with no transfer fee involved, perhaps in Japan or the United States.

He will have earned it. His right must be to go with dignity when it best suits him and United. Part of the art of management has always been in knowing when to phase out icons, to be fair to the player and club without incensing the support. One thinks of Bobby Moore and West Ham. Part of the skill of Ferguson and Liverpool managers traditionally, too, has been knowing the moment to temper sentiment with sound thinking. Arsene Wenger may not be long in facing the decision with another huge figure in Ian Wright.

Cantona brought United that dash of red devilry they needed to turn them from runners-up into champions and his timely moments since have kept them on that pedestal. It is now what Liverpool need, and something that sadly the evidence suggests is unlikely to come with the continued presence of Barnes. "He's been a fantastic player for us but we felt we had to get the ball forward quicker to put the French under pressure and we did," said Evans. "It may have sacrificed a bit of quality in the passing but it had to be done."

Indeed, one feels some sympathy for Barnes and Evans. Together they have restored dignity to the club and brought more lofty ethics to their football. It has, however, been destined not to succeed, in terms of silverware at least, and now the call is more for the work ethic.

When Barnes was substituted against Manchester United last Saturday, there was warm applause tainted by cheers. Anfield sensed the end of an era and the noises of a few were the gut-reaction on the day rather than the appreciation of the years. The Liverpool way has also been to treat its servants with respect when time is called. The stadium, though, was clearly happier on Thursday with the less cerebral swiftness and passion it was served.

It is why Evans probably feels that he does not have to replace Barnes like for like. Nor should United with Cantona. A few years ago, Ferguson might have liked Matthew Le Tissier; now potentially he has a carrot-topped Cantona in Paul Scholes. Beckham, too, might blossom further in the freedom. The need remains for a high-quality finisher - ironically Andy Cole provided well against Borussia without achieving what he was bought for - and a solid central defender.

It is probably not yet the end for Cantona and Barnes, more likely the beginning of the end. The Frenchman, 31 next month, still has some years of playing elsewhere though Barnes, at 33, is close to the coaching option. They may just about be able to say at Old Trafford and Anfield that "the king is red, long live the king" but the day nears when the pun, and the pair, gives way.