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The clock at Old Trafford shows 81 minutes have elapsed, and Manchester United are being held by Villarreal in the UEFA Champions League.

Nemanja Matic plays the ball into space down the Reds’ left wing, but Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t on the Serbian’s wavelength.

It appears that the visitors’ defender Juan Foyth can harmlessly usher it out of play, eating up valuable seconds as the Yellow Submarine close out another positive result against United.

Suddenly, the Stretford End murmurs. They’ve seen a red shirt – no, more of a blur – tearing towards the touchline from the centre of the pitch. Is he going to get there?

He is.

Nipping in front of Foyth, he gains possession just as the ball kisses the white line and plays it inside to Bruno Fernandes as United suddenly pile forward in search of that all-important winning goal.

The crowd roars now and it’s a significant moment because almost a full year since he signed for the club, it’s the first time a full Old Trafford has really been able to acknowledge the contribution of one of its new heroes, Edinson Cavani.

‘El Matador’, as he’s been affectionately known since his time in Naples, where they know how to fall in love with a footballer, has had to play out the vast majority of his United career so far in front of rows and rows of vacant seats, in echoey, empty stadia across the country and on the Continent.

For a player who thrives so much from the sound and colour that supporters provide, football in the COVID-19 era can’t have been easy.

But there’s a reason why, even with Fernandes and Greenwood on the pitch, and Ronaldo coming off the bench, Cavani’s ‘King of Uruguay’ was one of the dominant chants during United’s home game against Everton on Saturday, as it has been throughout the season so far.

Cavani connects with fans. We love his heart-on-sleeve attitude, his work rate and willingness to chase a lost cause – superbly exemplified by that hunting-down of Foyth in midweek.

I can’t have been the only Red who reacted to the news of Cavani joining as a free agent with a certain amount of scepticism.

The date was 5 October 2020 and heads were still frazzled by the previous day’s result: a 6-1 home thrashing by Tottenham Hotspur.

There was respect for the Uruguayan and the numbers he’d put up at Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain, but also the sense that he’d never quite managed to convince at the very highest level, notably in Champions League knockouts, where PSG had routinely come unstuck.

Now, after months without playing due to a combination of injury and the pandemic, he’d be joining United and, according to the naysayers, disrupting a quick and youthful attacking frontline which was really beginning to blossom.

Could Cavani do it in England? Was he a panic buy? Plenty of questions were being asked but the 34-year-old has answered them, even as he’s faced his own personal challenges, through the occasional injury or suspension and having to spend so much time away from his family back in South America.

Hard running and dedication to the cause isn’t enough to pass muster as a United striker: you need goals.

Cavani provided them in his first season, some 17 in 39 games, and they often arrived at vital times.

There was the diving header deep into St Mary’s in stoppage time, to complete a two-goal turnaround against Southampton.

What about the header at Spurs, as United roared back in the second half with arguably our most impressive performance of the season to enact revenge against Jose Mourinho’s men?

Edi came to the fore in Europe, too: braces in both legs of the semi-final versus Roma swung that crazy tie our way, while he was on hand to equalise against Villarreal in the final itself.

The Uruguayan was so impressive that, despite United fans being locked out of grounds for 14 months, a new song emerged, with our then no.7 being serenaded on social media to the tune of ABBA’s smash hit Gimme Gimme Gimme.

It became a real earworm, with Cavani hitting imperious form as winter turned to spring. Eight goals in under four weeks rubberstamped United’s position in the Premier League and ensured progress in Europe, and his performances were recognised with consecutive fan-voted Player of the Month accolades.

Edi’s link-up with Greenwood around this time rubbished those early claims of him reducing the teenager’s game time, as the pair struck up a fruitful master-student relationship.

“Out on the pitch, I’m part of a team. I’m there to work hard for that team and to do my best for every one of the lads who go to make up our team,” said Cavani, after one incident in Italy where he’d stepped in to defend Greenwood from being accosted by Roma defenders.

The forward had scored two vital away goals to take United through, but it was that confrontation with opposing players that became the enduring image and it hit a note – we want our forwards to have a bit of an edge, as Mark Hughes, Andy Cole, Ruud van Nistelrooy and others all did.

Our overwhelming concern at the beginning of May was not centred around the action on the pitch, it was about Cavani’s contract situation and whether we’d all be able to come together and enjoy watching him play.

Rumours abounded that he wanted to return to South America, but on Monday 10 May came the welcome news: ‘El Matador’ had signed a one-year contract extension.

He celebrated the following week, when a limited crowd finally returned to Old Trafford, by scoring one of the greatest goals ever seen in front of the Stretford End: a chip from fully 45 yards which had former PSG team-mate and Fulham goalkeeper Alphonse Areola stretching but to no avail.

Ronaldo’s arrival means Cavani is no longer United’s no.7, or the club’s most lauded forward. But Edi’s gesture in sacrificing that celebrated shirt just adds to his reputation.

The lyrics to his new song, the one that has been ringing around Old Trafford for weeks, were effortlessly tweaked and, after missing much of the first month of the season, he was serenaded with it while warming up in recent games against Villa and Villarreal.

Old Trafford has already had the opportunity to go barmy after a stoppage-time Ronaldo winner this season, coming not long after Cavani’s intervention had shown the Reds that there was still much to play for.

Think that was noisy? Just wait until Cavani finds his first goal of the campaign in M16…

The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.



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