Edinson Cavani’s Manchester United season started slowly. The Uruguayan didn’t sign until transfer deadline day and after moving from France he had to quarantine before being allowed into United’s first team bubble. He wasn’t fit enough to play back in Paris against his former club in October, then he came on for 32 minutes in a 0-0 draw against Chelsea. Cavani didn’t start any of the first nine league games in which he was involved, while a knock kept him out of December league games against Manchester City and bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United, who Manchester United meet at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Cavani had shown his quality with the timing of his run before his goal at Everton, the way he changed the game at Southampton. United were 2-0 down at half time when he came on, but won 3-2 with him on the pitch after he’d scored two and set up a third.
Cavani started in Champions League home games against Basaksehir and PSG, but his first league start didn’t come until December 29 against Wolves. He’s since played 90 minutes in three of the four league games since – and United won all of them. He missed a week’s football earlier this month serving a suspension for a comment made to a friend on a social media post, but he’s been one of United’s best players since, equalising against Fulham and performing superbly in Sunday’s FA Cup win against Liverpool.
The Uruguayan with 118 caps and 51 international goals made a dummy run to free up Mason Greenwood to score United’s first. He also played the ball to Greenwood who set up Rashford for United’s second and won the free-kick which led to Bruno Fernandes’ winner. Before that, he lost the ball which enabled Liverpool to score their second. Cavani, who communicated with his teammates mostly in Spanish, ran non-stop and hit the post with a late header.
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When The National asked his boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer what Cavani is bringing to his team, the United manager replied: “How long have we got? When a striker of that age runs almost 12 kilometres, he chases down every time a centre-back has the ball. He chases down every time the keeper has the ball. He back tackles centre midfielders. He made a mistake for the second goal and Liverpool scored, but he was the one who was closest to winning the ball back inside the 18-yard box. His reaction, his work rate and his habits and the threat in the box. The humility of coming in every single day and doing your best, we could go on and on. But his experience and attitude has given us a lesson, every single one of us.”
Cavani is 34 next month but given how little football he’s played, he doesn’t need resting. He’s also a positive influence on United's younger players.
“Mason [Greenwood] is more mature and he’s been training with Edinson Cavani for half a season now,” said Solskjaer. “He’s learning good habits. Whoever doesn’t learn good habits from a professional like him or Bruno [Fernandes], that’s a pity.”
“Edinson’s experience can be really helpful. He’s there as a backup, as a mentor. It doesn’t matter if it’s Anthony [Martial], Marcus [Rashford], Dan [James] or Mason, they all have things to learn. The more humble you are, the more hungry you are to learn and listen then the better you will become. Edinson has been in every single position to score a goal or win a ball back throughout his career and there’s so much to learn from him.”
Cavani speaks Spanish, Italian and French but not English.
“The football language is one common language so he’s learned the most important words,” explained Solskjaer. “He can’t sit down and do the long analysis with players but we have Juan [Mata], Nemanja [Matic], Bruno and Paul [Pogba] to help out and do the translations. In squad meetings, if there’s something he wants to lay across then he’s never shy to put his message across and the players will help. Some of the coaches also speak the language and they will help. I don’t and if I go back to my school days I regret not learning Spanish.”
There were some sceptics among United’s fan base when he was signed, but those who knew Cavani were adamant he was still a world-class footballer.
Cavani models himself on Gabriel Batistuta, the Argentine who stunned Old Trafford with a goal for Fiorentina in 1999 and then combined with Rui Costa to defeat United in Florence.
“Batistuta was the striker who basically brought together all the attributes and everything that I liked in a player, from my point of view of how I was as a player and how I lived and appreciated the game of football, and my style of play too,” Cavani said in Sunday’s match programme. “And yes, you tried to learn and pick up some of those attributes. If you look at him, one of the things that Batistuta had was that intuition, that ability to anticipate, to move and make a run to get rid of his marker, so he could get in on goal and get his header away.
“I think there are similarities in some of my goals with many goals that he scored. But it's true that he was the striker that I really liked and admired, because he had the ability to decide a game with his great fighting spirit, huge desire and great strength.”
Cavani, with five goals so far, is in-form and fit to play tonight, Marcus Rashford too after coming off against Liverpool with a knee injury. Despite scoring the second highest number of goals in the league, United’s attackers have yet to fully gel this season, but Solskjaer and his coaches are adamant that Cavani is a force for good in training and games and it would be difficult to argue with that given the evidence so far.