The last time the Premier League saw a character as enigmatic and brilliant as Liverpool forward Luis Suarez, it was a dazzling Frenchman whose name is still sung on the terraces decades after exiting English football. Eric Cantona's legacy is like no other - but in Suarez the Manchester United legend may have a spiritual successor. It's not a comparison many would leap to, especially not fans of the players' respective clubs, but the similarities are compelling...
When Cantona arrived at United, he was a man on a mission - a rescue mission. United were languishing behind Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers as well as surprise challengers Norwich City and Queens Park Rangers in the race for the 1992-93 Premier League title when the French maestro, sold by Leeds United for a paltry £1.2m to rid chairman Bill Fotherby of an outcast deemed unpredictable and lacking commitment, turned up to jolt the Manchester club's season into life. With summer signing Dion Dublin sidelined with a broken leg and Bryan McClair and Mark Hughes desperately out of form, Cantona was relied upon to deliver much-needed goals - and deliver he did. 9 goals later, United were ten points ahead of the pack, romping home to perhaps the most unlikely title in their history.
Suarez enjoyed a similar impact. Not unlike Cantona, he was offloaded mid-season to a side struggling for goals after a string of controversial incidents and handed the number 7 shirt. Both shirts came laden with expectation. At Liverpool, the number was previously donned by Dalglish and Kevin Keegan, while at United previous owners were the mercurial George Best and Bryan Robson. The Uruguayan came off the bench to score on his debut (despite not having had time to train with the team before the match, taking place just days after his transfer) and was highly influential in his remaining 12 appearances, rocketing the Reds up to sixth and into Europe. "The boy's a very special player. A Liverpool legend in the making," said Dalglish as Suarez quickly established himself as one of the most dangerous strikers in the league just as Cantona had done two seasons previous.
In the years that followed both stars' arrivals, they became increasingly depended upon, with critics suggesting both Manchester United and Liverpool had become one man teams. In the 93-94 season, Cantona provided 31% of the team's goals (compared to the last time United won the league in 2011, during which leading scorer Dimitar Berbatov scored 25% of the team's goals) while so far this season Suarez has been involved in 58% of Liverpool's goals. In 2012 the Kop hero created 75 chances from open play to become the Premier League's second most effective attacking player, second only to Manchester City's David Silva, and took more shots on goal than any other player in the English game (163), scoring 19.
Though their playing styles are different, with Suarez's game characterised by nimble runs and scrambled goal s a world apart from the leisurely, elegant play typical of the Frenchman, the pair are also drawn together by their penchant for controversy. This weekend saw the latest Suarez storm, with the star labelled a cheat for handling the ball to score the decisive goal in a 2-1 FA Cup victory over Mansfield. Since landing in England he's been embroiled in an alleged racism scandal that dominated headlines in 2012, handed a ban for taunting opposition support and accused of diving. Before that he was famously sent off in a tense 2010 World Cup clash between Uruguay and Ghana for clearing the ball from the line with his hands and labelled the Cannibal of Ajax for biting an opponent.
Cantona meanwhile was rarely out of the headlines during his tenure at Manchester United. The Frenchman averaged a red card once in every 24 Premier League games. To put that into context, reputed Premier League hardmen Roy Keane and Patrick Viera averaged a sending off once in every 54 and 35 games respectively. Even the game's most notorious hardman Vinnie Jones was sent off less times than Cantona. But it was a cold January evening at Selhurst Park in 1995 that will go down as his most infamous moment. Sent off for a kick on Crystal Palace defender Richard Shaw, the Frenchman launched a kung-fu kick to the chest of an abusive fan as he headed for the dressing room, earning a lengthy ban and 100 hours of community service. His only explanation of his actions at the later press conference? "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much."
But the greatest similarity between the two players is not the controversy they attract but how they each rise above it. When Suarez eventually retires, it won't be the furore that he's remembered for. It'll be the football. The deft touches. The gasps from the crowds as another ball is guided into the back of the net with surgical precision. Just like Cantona.
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