During the busy Christmas period there are two things which are ever present around Old Trafford.
The fans saluting a past legend in Eric Cantona with a seasonal tribute to the great man and an analysis of how close United are to the league leaders prior to launching their customary second half of the season raid on the title.
During his time plying his trade at Old Trafford, Cantona was influential in the side hitting form come the turn of the year. When looking at his career at United, the only season which he was left without a Premier League winner’s medal was in 1994/95. Looking specifically at the following season we can draw parallels with the way the current United side is shaping up. Having lost a host of famous names such as Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis, United were expected to struggle in the league as the squad was said to be far too inexperienced to be title contenders.
Come the turn of the year Cantona dragged United to be title grabbing late winners. The side in its current incantation, having lost two high profile players has been much maligned and written off in certain quarters. But they are still within touching distance, following the wins against Hull and Wigan. United are building their team around one talismanic player much in the mould of Cantona.
Wayne Rooney has been in inspirational form so far this season netting 14 Premier League goals, already beating his last season’s total by two. The England man has scored in each of United’s last five Premier League wins and in the two most recent wins has been involved in virtually all of the goals. The way he influenced the game away at Hull following his mistake and his performance against Wigan will draw many comparisons with the former United number seven. This was always going to be an important season for Rooney following the summer departures and he has performed exactly as required.
If United are to stand any chance of retaining their Premier League title Rooney will have to maintain a level of consistency on a par with Cantona and inspire them to victory after victory. The former Everton man is currently showing a level of maturity which suggests he has all the attributes to do just that. If the Red Devils lose Rooney for any reason, there will certainly be a huge question mark over their title credentials, just as in 1995 following the loss of Cantona.
United have been extremely unfortunate considering the injury problems suffered at the back, but on the other hand have been fortunate considering the way Chelsea have failed to take advantage. With the return of Nemanja Vidic, Wes Brown and Rafael da Silva United have finally been able to field a back four consisting of four natural defenders and have provided a platform on which to build. That successful side of 1996 did not simply rely on Cantona, as players such as Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister had their part to play.
If United can manage to field a consistently strong back four, then, in the eyes of their manager, they still have a strong chance of lifting the title. Following the loss at Fulham, Sir Alex Ferguson was worrying that United may have left themselves with too much to do. This just shows how open this year’s title race is becoming. Another parallel to the seasons of the mid to late nineties where title winners were able to drop more points than has been the case in recent seasons.
United face another English side with Cantona connections when they host Leeds in the FA Cup this weekend. They will be likely to be without Rooney, as a whole host of changes will be rung as the Elland Road side no longer poses the same threat as days gone by. The Premier League champions will be expected to progress without too much trouble but the threat posed by Leeds should not be underestimated following their impressive league form sitting top of the League One table and the performance earlier in the season against a strong Liverpool side in the League Cup.
The Elland Road side has won their last three League One matches showing great character to come from behind twice in their last encounter requiring a much changed United side to gel immediately to combat an in form and confident side going into the encounter.