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Before the world had Messi, United had Cantona

Messi’s magic of last weekend brought back memories of the king of Old Trafford

Man Utd v Soton

Lionel Messi’s third goal against Real Betis last Saturday night might have ended the debate as to the ‘greatest of all time’ between the Argentine and Cristiano Ronaldo. But for some, the goal, the vision, the skill, and the mastery was reminiscent of another footballing great, and one who graced the Theatre of Dreams during his career: Eric Cantona.

Football is cyclical, and vitally important elements of football – even players – come in cycles too.

The ‘Makelele role’ paved the way for defensive holding midfielders in the Premier League such as Owen Hargreaves, N’golo Kanté and the latter day Steven Gerrard. Manuel Neuer paved the way for the ‘sweeper keeper’ craze, goalkeepers who were as good with their feet as they were at shot stopping and it lead to the arrival of players like Ederson and Claudio Bravo in the Premier League.

Before any of these players came along however, Eric Cantona brought a new wave to the Premier League. There would be pretenders and even genuine contenders to his throne, but few could replicate the brilliance that was Eric. Arsenal would sign Dennis Bergkamp and Chelsea would sign Gianfranco Zola but it was never as mesmerising or authentic as it had been under French maestro.

There was so much more to Cantona than his goals. Strong, incredibly quick — either with or without the ball — frugal in possession, and possessing the most incredible first touch to ever adorn Old Trafford, Cantona had everything that a footballer should possess. What follows here is not so much a collection of Cantona’s greatest goals, but more so a chronology of the Cantona catalogue, and the brilliance that the Frenchman could elicit when required.

For many, Cantona had retired before their Manchester United fandom began, and he is merely that enigmatic figure discussed with reverence and awe. Zlatan of the 90s. He could never have been as good as…. But he was. Almost mythic while still a player, he was Manchester United. Not only did he spearhead the first title win in twenty six years, he mentored the new brood of young players that Alex Ferguson blooded in the mid-1990s and showed them the way to win titles for years to come.

Cantona had an ability to move like few big attackers before him. His goal against QPR at Old Trafford in 1993 demonstrated his ability to beat players and spearhead attacks.

Similarly his breakaway goal at Bramall Lane in December 1993 showed how Cantona could turn defence into attack and break opposition teams.

Beyond speed, there was skill and close control in abundance. The Sunderland goal from December 1996 is lauded for its finish, but the manner with which the Frenchman manoeuvred through the Sunderland team is the impetus of the move; that one-two with Brian McClair which created the attacking opportunity. Look at Cantona at the Munich Anniversary game in 1998, six months after his retirement and the manner in which Eric dribbled nimbly through the defence and finished ably is astounding even today.

To those who ask Eric Cantona what his best Manchester United goal was, he will evasively respond that his best goal was “a pass;” to Denis Irwin in January 1993 in which the Frenchman played a deft one-two over the Tottenham defence before Irwin smashed the ball home in a 4-1 win for United.

There were few better leaders on the football pitch than Eric. Known for his aggression and dominance, Cantona was as authentic a champion that ever played for Manchester United. He led by example and his big-game dominance was forever evident. One of his most famed goals, the lay off from a freekick against Arsenal in September 1993, will rival any free-kick ever scored at Old Trafford.

Fast forward three years, and the King did one better; receiving a volley on his chest, taking his time as the Arsenal defence shirked away before volleying it over the head of David Seaman.

It helped that big games were Cantona’s forte. The 1996 title run in was marked by one of Eric’s best runs of form. His goal against Newcastle in March 1996 killed off Newcastle’s title charge in United’s 1-0 win. The year previous, Cantona had scored an outstanding goal in a title decider against Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford; nailing a header from 3 yards at the tightest of angles. At the end of the 1996 season, it was a late, late goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup Final that seemed to evade every single player on the pitch as it made its way into the back of the net.

Messi’s goal on Saturday night was an amazing goal, and for this writer, it brought to mind three outstanding Eric Cantona finishes in one. If you were to obsess over ingredients, Messi’s goal seemed a combination of the Frenchman’s goal against Southampton in August 1993, against Sheffield United in January 1995 and Sunderland in December 1996. There was a common thread between each goal as Cantona showed his incredible vision and skill to spot the stranded goalkeeper and ably put the ball into the net with the most delicate of touches.

The goal that Messi scored on Saturday night was incredible and truly breathtaking, but nothing new to Manchester United fans.

Long before there was Messi, we had Eric.