LONDON — Edinson Cavani is 34 years old, out of contract at the end of the season and, according to Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, “still wants time to make his mind up” about whether to stay at the club. But in his inspiring of a 3-1 win at Tottenham on Sunday, the Uruguayan striker showed why he cannot be allowed to leave.
Unless United are able to surprise everyone by signing Erling Haaland, Harry Kane or a player of similar world-class quality this summer, they should buy themselves time by persuading Cavani to stay. Because on a day he shared the same pitch at Spurs striker Kane, Cavani stood head and shoulders above the England captain in terms of producing a centre-forward masterclass.
He scored one, made another and had a glorious first-half goal ruled out following the latest VAR controversy to afflict the Premier League, an incident that led to a postgame verbal clash between Solskjaer and his opposite number Jose Mourinho.
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But while clearly enraged by the decision of referee Chris Kavanagh to disallow his 34th-minute goal following a debatable foul by Scott McTominay on Spurs forward Son Heung-Min — ‘We weren’t conned, the referee was,’ Solskjaer said — Cavani’s experience enabled him to use the sense of injustice as motivation rather than a distraction.
His movement and work rate, his readiness to pull defenders out of position to create space for others and, above all, his predatory instincts in the penalty area, were key elements of a match-winning display as he drove his team to arguably their best 45-minute performance under Solskjaer’s management.
Cavani made the first for Fred, which cancelled out Son’s 40th-minute opener, by forcing Tottenham keeper Hugo Lloris to push a goalbound effort into the midfielder’s path, while the goal his performance deserved came on 79 minutes when Cavani scored with a stunning diving header from Mason Greenwood’s cross.
And before Greenwood struck United’s third in stoppage time to seal victory, Cavani kept the lead intact with a clearing header that denied Moussa Sissoko an equaliser and bounced off his own team’s post. Cavani’s reaction at the final whistle, when he punched the air and clenched both fists, was that of a man who felt he had proved a point, but can United keep him?
His Old Trafford future is a complex situation. The free transfer from Paris Saint Germain has, at times, struggled for fitness since arriving last October and he remains angered by the three-match suspension and £100,000 fine imposed the English Football Association in December for what was judged to be a racist Instagram post.
There have been some important contributions to the United cause before Sunday — Cavani was equally inspirational in a November win at Southampton — but difficulties adjusting to life in England due to strict COVID-19 restrictions have added to considerations that he might return to South America for the final years of his career.
“For a new lad who doesn’t speak English and not having his family over here, of course it (leaving) is in the back of his head,” Solskjaer said after the game. “If he decides it’s just the season, then we’d be very happy to have had him here.
“We’ve had upfront and honest meetings, there’s no secret we want to keep him. He knows what we want. I want him at Old Trafford while it’s full at the Stretford End scoring a diving header like today there’s no better feeling, so let’s wait and see.
Solskjaer added that Cavani’s performance was unlike any United have had for some time from a prototypical No. 9 and, in doing so, acknowledged what he cannot do without: A striker of true quality. Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial add attacking flair and goals to the team, but none could be described as an out-an-out leader of the forward line, such as Cavani, Kane or Haaland.
Meanwhile, whoever is up front for United next season will hope that Paul Pogba is still at the club to build on his developing partnership with Bruno Fernandes. Since returning from a six-week injury layoff last month, Pogba has been an influential attacking force, working in tandem with Fernandes, and the pair can be a dangerous double act, if they remain together.
With Pogba entering the final year of his contract after this season, his future is uncertain, but this win at least moved United a step closer to confirming Champions League qualification — they are nine points clear of fifth-place Chelsea — and that will make it easier to retain the French World Cup winner.
For Spurs, the defeat means they are six points off the pace in the top-four race and struggling to make it back into Europe’s premier competition: “You look to the table and you see the distance to the top four. You know it’s difficult, but it’s mathematically possible,” admitted Mourinho.
To reach the Champions League, Tottenham cannot afford to drop any more points after taking the lead. Even if they do solve a problem that cost them countless times this season, it might already be too late. Questions will inevitably follow about what that means for Kane’s future, which serves as a further reminder that an accomplished No. 9 is invaluable.