Watching Manchester United hold back Manchester City’s inevitable title win for at least 48 hours, there was one thing that was obvious: if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants properly to challenge for the Premier League next season, rather than simply be in a position to postpone Pep Guardiola’s coronation, then there is one signing he has to make.
Not Jadon Sancho or Harry Kane (though both of those would help). Not Wesley Fofana or Youri Tielemans (though neither would weaken his side). No, the player whose signature he has immediately to secure is Edinson Cavani, whose contract comes to an end next month. Stopping him heading back to the South American pampas, as he has indicated is his intention, is now Solskjaer’s most pressing priority.
When he signed for United in the last few hours of the summer transfer window there were many who were sceptical about Cavani.
It looked like another example of the starstruck Ed Woodward-led recruitment policy which had plagued the club since Alex Ferguson retired, another addition to the long line of former superstars brought in to Old Trafford well past their sell-by date. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Zlatan Ibrahimovic: all great players, world-beaters in their time, heading to the north-west, generally compromised by degeneration, apparently solely to buff up their pension.
How wrong was such a dismissive view of the matador Cavani?
Almost from the off, the word emerging from inside Carrington was that the Uruguayan did not fit the crocked has-been narrative. Fit, firing and, after falling foul of the Byzantine dressing-room politics at the Parc des Princes, with a point to prove: this was a real asset.
We were told he was in such good shape you were more likely to find a Union flag at a Scottish Nationalist rally than you were any fat on his lean and honed torso. Plus professional and committed – here was the perfect dressing-room role model to help steer the younger elements at the club. This was a mentor as much as a colleague.
Besides, just one look at the sheer delight he takes in scoring is to see that this is a man still relishing his game.
Yet it took a while to see the difference he might bring on the pitch. A positive Covid-19 test and then a suspension for inappropriate language on social media stalled his contribution.
These past few weeks, however, he has been magnificent, providing constant, compelling evidence of his ability.
He may have been on the pitch for only 25 minutes against Aston Villa, but from the moment he ruffled Mason Greenwood’s hair as they swapped places on the touchline, revealing in the process much about the way his presence has helped the youngster develop his game, everything he did was telling.
It was his movement that was so striking. Too often when in the doldrums, this United team can become static, waiting for things to happen rather than moving to make sure they do. Cavani is compelling to watch. Not pointless zigzagging, but sudden shifts of direction to create space.
His goal was an exemplar of why he poses such a threat. It was all there.
After a scrabble around the penalty area, the ball made its way to Marcus Rashford out on the right wing. Even as it was being passed wide, Cavani began his move, suddenly sprinting ahead of Matty Cash, to gift himself the room in which he could meet Rashford’s cross with a deft header beyond Emi Martinez.
It was his eighth goal in his past seven games. And it was a masterclass of centre-forward play. In short, what he brings to United is authority.
If Solskjaer wishes to make a proper dash for the title next season he needs Cavani to provide the difference.
If he could persuade him not to head home but to stay in Manchester for another season, it might well prove to be the single most significant service to United since Ferguson persuaded Eric Cantona from giving up the game after he had been banned for taking a detour to the Crystal Palace dressing-room via the chest of a shouty fan.
He is that important.
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