The last time Edinson Cavani played for Manchester United, it proved a valedictory outing in the No.7 shirt. It was in a cameo at Wolves, when Cristiano Ronaldo’s return was arranged but not rubberstamped, before Cavani obligingly agreed to take the No.21 he has worn for much of his prolific career with Uruguay.
Perhaps there was something symbolic about it. Many threatened to be displaced by Ronaldo’s reappearance but maybe Cavani is most imperilled. The role of the ageing scorer of hundreds of goals who is terrific in the air and can find space in a crowded penalty box has suddenly been claimed by the greatest of his generation. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has confirmed that he sees Ronaldo as more of a centre-forward these days but has spoken of the versatility of United’s band of attackers. Yet if one cannot occupy another role to dovetail with Ronaldo, it is Cavani. It leaves him looking a Ronaldo understudy, reliant on age meaning his minutes are rationed, while his relentless hunger for goals suggests the Portuguese will hope they are not.
Cavani could face West Ham on Wednesday. It will be his maiden appearance in front of a packed Old Trafford. “This is the real Manchester United, this is how I sold Manchester United to Edinson, you can’t leave after one season with no fans,” Solskjaer enthused after the victory over Leeds. Perhaps it was not as persuasive an argument as he thought: the sense has been that Cavani doesn’t share Solskjaer’s love of all things United, or indeed of living in Manchester.
He might not have bought into the romance of United, but the old gunslinger for hire illustrated he can be deadly. In the time between Ronaldo’s first and second spells at Old Trafford, the Portuguese scored 392 league goals and their various No.7s only got 24. But Cavani was an exception in a tale of underachievement: his 10 came at an average of one every 140 minutes. He struck every hour in the Europa League.
Indeed, it almost produced the crowning glory of his time at United and the ultimate vindication for the short-termism of bringing in a 33-year-old. Cavani was masterfully good in the semi-final against Roma; at Old Trafford, he scored twice, got two assists and won a penalty. In the return fixture, he became the first player to get two goals in each leg of a Uefa semi-final since Klaus Allofs 35 years earlier. In a final where too many United players underperformed, he equalised and, put on the high-pressure fifth penalty in the shootout, converted. It was the performance of a talisman.
Like his predecessor in the Paris Saint-Germain attack, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cavani felt one who had come to United late in a footballing life, but who had the presence, confidence and ability to belong there. His last outing at Old Trafford, after all, brought a spectacular goal from 40 yards against Fulham.
Perhaps West Ham will bring a first start since that Europa League final, but the context has changed. Cavani was not the automatic choice for much of last season as much as the high-class alternative but the pecking order was more flexible. Now, 423 goals into his career, he could be one of the most overqualified bit-part players in history. Assuming Ronaldo stays fit, that feels unavoidable.
The logical conclusion is that if United had known Ronaldo would rejoin then neither they nor Cavani would have wanted to give the Uruguayan a second one-year deal. He may be swept aside by Ronaldo mania, but there is second ageing maestro in their attack. And given how rare his outings may be, perhaps glimpses of Cavani in a United shirt should be savoured still more.
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