COMETH the hour, cometh l'homme. Two days after picking up the Footballer of the Year Award, Eric Cantona deserved an extra medal here for rescuing the Cup final from deadlocked mediocrity.
Cantona's spectacular winner, four minutes from the end, will be remembered long after a mundane match is forgotten and guaranteed a place in the annals for earning United their second League and Cup double in three years.
Glory, glory, fair enough, but the 19th, and most dramatic, goal of the Frenchman's season of atonement served a useful second purpose in sparing a tranquillised audience the ordeal of an extra half hour.
Amid all the celebrations of United's historic triumph, and Alex Ferguson's elevation to the pantheon of truly great managers, it has to be said that Cantona's performance was not one of his best, and that it was not much of a final.
Two teams with too much respect for one and other, both played the cagey game and cancelled each other out. As a result, and not for the first time, travelling expectantly to the famous old stadium was infinitely more exciting than what was on offer on arrival.
United are unlikely to see it that way, of course. From the perspective of the winner's dressing room, they did what they had to do and, in fairness, it is true that if either side deserved to win, they did.
It is just as true, however, that they won with a stifling, rather than barnstorming performance. They packed the midfield, shackling Keane and Butt in the deep and drawing in the wingers, Beckham and Giggs, to deny McManaman the space in which to undermine them, as he had done in both the League games between the two teams. No matter that the front men lacked support. The end justified the means.
Liverpool, for their part, were left without plan B when McManaman was stymied. Barnes, the elder statesman to whom the young players looked for guidance in such situations, was a major disappointment. He looked like an Essex girl in his white boots, and there is an obvious temptation to add that he played accordingly.
Surprisingly, disappointingly, the best players in a match which had such a glittering array of attacking talent were primarily defensive. Keane gave a Trojan performance and Irwin was foot-perfect at right-back.
It all began so brightly for Liverpool, too. As if to compensate for their team's loss of the toss for the right to wear their beloved red, the Liverpool fans belted out "You'll Never Walk Alone" with special fervour. The United contingent, strangely, seemed more interested in abusing Kevin Keegan and Newcastle.
The champions were first out of the traps and might have scored early but for Cole's imitation of a rabbit caught in the headlights whenever he gets a sight of goal. Utterly bereft of confidence, the 7 million pound striker spurned openings of the sort he used to profit from so regularly before that fee became such a millstone.
As early as the third minute he looked like a substitution waiting to happen, taking Cantona's headed pass on his chest and miscuing hopelessly, with Wright and Scales a yard off him and at his mercy.
A minute later, Beckham produced the pass of the afternoon to set him up. But to United's dismay, Cole dithered on the edge of the penalty area, allowing Scales to make a good, recovery tackle.
Giggs then created a third chance, evading Wright before squaring the ball along the 18-yard line, left to right. Beckham's consequent shot had power, but was repelled by a smart reaction from James.
Had an early goal gone in, the match might have taken a different course, with Liverpool forced to go for it. Instead, it became scrappy and occasionally fractious.
Fowler was lucky to get away with a provocative push and insulting gesture at Keane, who to everybody's relief, did not react. Wright and Cole also exchanged unpleasantries, and the referee felt compelled to establish his authority with three bookings, either side of half-time. At least it gave us something to write about.
United shaded the first half, but it was Liverpool who created the best chance, Redknapp shooting over from 12 yards after Wright had laid back McManaman's centre. From the Liverpool viewpoint, that was as good as it got. Cantona threatened to ignite the slowest of slow burners at the start of the second half, with an athletic shot, which James did well to keep out, but the damper soon descended again and despite desultory goal attempts from Redknapp, Keane and McManaman, it looked odds-on extra time until Cantona's decisive flourish.
James was not able to collect Beckham's corner from the right, but seemed to have dealt with it well enough with a punch that carried beyond his penalty area. Not quite far enough. Cantona, lurking inside the D, met it with the sweetest of shots that flashed past the startled goalkeeper.
Fittingly, then, it was the reformed Frenchman who went up to receive the Cup.
Copyright - The Sunday Times