The same swagger, different Cantona

 

THERE was his headed equaliser of course, giving a 2-2 lifeline for Manchester United, but since his return from suspension, Eric Cantona has not looked the same player.

The swagger is still there but not the commitment. As though fearful of further retribution, he does not tackle.

A question about the Frenchman, who has been described by Alex Ferguson as the most talented footballer he has ever worked with, hung in the air at the press conference. "And Eric?", Ferguson's sharp eyes scanned the room but he was being more realistic than defensive. "He scored a goal," the Manchester United manager said.

Cantona's form may be as perplexing for Ferguson as it is for his club's supporters. The natural fire in Cantona is just a flicker, the obligation of impeccable behaviour unquestionably a burden there is an impression of brooding uncertainty. More the player who fell out of favour at Leeds than the one who lorded it over Old Trafford.

With only 10 minutes separating Manchester United's strongest team Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin were brought back ahead of prognosis from another cup disappointment, Cantona met Lee Sharpe's free kick with a firm far post header. But what else? A sublime flick here and there, occasional abortive dribbles.

A replay at Roker Park was more than Manchester United deserved. "They (Sunderland) came for a cup tie," Ferguson said. "We went out for a normal game. That's a problem for our players. They play so many important matches that it becomes difficult for them to sense anything out of the ordinary." From the first minute when Craig Russell beat a lumbering Bruce to Irwin's back pass and Gary Neville cleared off the line there was clearly substance in the confidence Peter Reid had expressed shortly before the kick off. "We'll pass it and I think we can turn their defenders," the Sunderland manager said.

Not even the setback of Nicky Butt's lob to finish off an excellent United move after 13 minutes could subdue Sunderland and the marvellous encouragement they got from 8,000 supporters.

The lively running of Craig Russell, Michael Gray's surges along the left and Paul Bracewell's passing were as good as anything United had to offer.

Gray saw a shot rebound from an upright but it was the introduction of Steve Agnew for the injured captain, Kevin Ball, after 25 minutes that would alter things dramatically in the second half. Finding himself with space, Agnew went forward and unleashed a 25 yard shot in the 61st minute that went low past Kevin Pilkington.

The first of United's substitutes, Sharpe, was barely on the field when a move that developed around him led to Russell putting Sunderland in front.

It was not until the last 20 minutes, attacking the goal where Sunderland's support was strongest, that United raised the tempo enough to trouble a defence in which Andy Melville was outstanding.

Unable to shift play from their own penalty area Sunderland came under increasing pressure and a dubious free kick led to Cantona's goal and comparative disappointment. "My players feel we should have won and I agree with them," Reid said. "The way we were performing I couldn't see us losing another goal, but they had a right good go."