There can be no more contrasting personalities in the history of Manchester United strikers than Eric Cantona and Henrik Larsson but Sir Alex Ferguson was compelled to compare his Swedish debutant with the former enfant terrible last night after his goalscoring contribution against Aston Villa.
Though United were indebted to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and a horrendous injury-time mistake from the on-loan goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly for their place in today's FA Cup fourth-round draw, the Norwegian striking in stoppage time after Milan Baros had appeared to secure a replay for Martin O'Neill's side, Larsson instantly proved the merits of his 10-week loan move from Helsingborgs with a display brimming with intelligence and United's opening goal on a profligate afternoon.
The first day at the office had unfolded to a well-rehearsed script for Henrik Larsson. Greeted with wild acclaim by an expectant Old Trafford, its numbers swelled by dozens of pilgrims from Celtic Park, the venerable Swede responded as Martin O'Neill feared he would by illuminating their FA Cup reunion with vision and velvet touches, scoring on his Manchester United debut and taking his leave to a standing ovation. Then came the dawning that, no matter what is achieved over the next 10 weeks, the mantle of United's revered Scandinavian predator will always remain the preserve of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Stoppage time had just commenced and Sir Alex Ferguson had begun to ponder Aston Villa's possible team for the third-round replay when the Norwegian took possession of a Wayne Rooney pass on the angle of the opposition penalty area. At that moment someone stepped into the United manager's line of sight and obstructed him from what came next, although, with the 33-year-old poised, he must surely have known.
In 1999, Solskjaer struck in similar fashion to destroy Liverpool's hopes in the fourth round and grant United another 2-1 reprieve en route to their historic treble. Eight years on, and looking eight days older despite the stress of spending two years fighting to save his career from a serious knee injury, his ability to twist the knife at the most critical juncture remains undiminished. This time it was the turn of O'Neill and Villa, like Liverpool, Bayern Munich and countless more before, to rue not only Solskjaer's instinct but the luxury at Ferguson's disposal when he can replace one outstanding veteran striker with another.
"I didn't see the goal because someone blocked my view but when Ole is on the pitch you know you've always got a chance," Ferguson said. "To have nine goals so far [this season] is a phenomenal effort."
Although, as the United manager was forced to concede, it was only due to a calamitous response by Gabor Kiraly in the Villa goal that Solskjaer was able to stir the memories, and the Premiership leaders were spared a further examination of their Cup ambitions in the Midlands in 10 days' time.
Though Larsson and Solskjaer showed the clinical touch so many in red lacked, they were not the only European Cup-winning strikers on display. When Milan Baros equalised with 16 minutes remaining, finding the bottom corner of Tomasz Kuszczak's goal after receiving a mis-hit shot from Gary Cahill, the Villa ploy of containment and counter-attack looked set to succeed.
O'Neill's team would have scored minutes earlier had Isaiah Osbourne not poked his effort straight at United's stand-in keeper, but the Ulsterman must have suspected that, having prospered through Larsson's brilliance in Scotland, he would be the one to suffer for the Swede's enduring desire on his United debut. He was not mistaken.
For 55 minutes United laboured to add penetration to their play, as they had done at Newcastle on New Year's Day, although the blame could not be pinned on their debutant, whose movement, speed of thought and speed of touch slotted neatly into their style despite the fact he has not played a competitive game since mid-December. Instead, Villa's compact game plan, with Gavin McCann and Osbourne providing dual protection to the back four, their isolation of Cristiano Ronaldo for long periods and the performance of Wayne Rooney in front of goal were the principal causes of an afternoon of toil.
As always it was impossible to fault Rooney's endeavour but he lacks the ruthlessness of a Larsson inside the penalty area and allowed Villa to escape twice before the interval when he lingered too long on inviting passes from his new strike partner. Rooney's goal return stands at one in 12 games, and United must be thankful his creativity is not suffering a similar malaise.
It will prove a tearful wrench for both parties if another ten weeks truly is as long as Henrik Larsson can spend at Manchester United — an issue already under review. This great stadium has overawed many good players, particularly strikers, but the former Celtic and Barcelona forward could not have looked more at home on the grand stage.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer snatched victory, and much of the glory, when his shot went through Gabor Kiraly's hands to propel United into today's FA Cup fourth-round draw, but most of the afternoon had been spent fruitfully watching his fellow Scandinavian striker on his debut in England. He is trying to do in ten weeks what Solskjaer has been doing for ten years at Old Trafford, but already he looks a fine asset.
The idea of him returning to Helsingborgs to play in front of 10,000 people just as the English and European campaigns reach "squeaky-bum time", to borrow Sir Alex Ferguson's memorable phrase, will surely be the cause of much agonising if this clever performance proves typical of his brief loan spell. It was not only his goal — a wonderfully executed finish — that brought a full house at Old Trafford to its feet, but the movement, the turns, the lay-offs and, on one occasion, a bit of Ronaldoesque juggling followed by an aerial back-heel to a team-mate. Larsson's only disappointment will be that he did not score earlier. He had set himself up with one neat pirouette in the first half, only to shoot at Kiraly, and then struck the goalkeeper's legs when put through by Michael Carrick's chip.
In the 55th minute, he finally hit the target, taking one touch and then using minimal backlift to find the top corner from near the penalty spot. The loan fee of £800,000 split between player and his Swedish club looks money well spent.
United had dominated the first half, but if there was a weakness aside from the failure to convert, they were missing a dynamic presence in central midfield, which remains their greatest failing. With Paul Scholes rested, Ferguson had opted for Ryan Giggs alongside Carrick. The Welshman has had a good season, but United lacked urgency and bite at their heart — the qualities that they eventually expect from Owen Hargreaves.
This was the day Henrik Larsson showed that he could be one of Sir Alex Ferguson's cannier signings - and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer proved that, when it comes to Scandinavian strikers, there is still nobody to touch him at Old Trafford. Larsson will cherish the memories but it was Solskjaer's contribution in stoppage-time that was decisive for Manchester United, aided by the kind of goalkeeping error that may have Gabor Kiraly waking in cold sweats for weeks to come.
Trailing to a splendid debut goal from Larsson, Villa seemed destined for a replay courtesy of a 74th-minute equaliser from Milan Baros, their substitute striker. United had been on top for most of the game but droves of supporters were already heading away believing Villa's performance had been dogged enough to add another match to the club's winter schedule.
But then came injury time. Wayne Rooney played in Solskjaer and, coming in from the right, the Norwegian lashed in a shot that, though well struck, ought to have been a routine save for Kiraly. Horribly, inexplicably, the on-loan Crystal Palace goalkeeper got his positioning all wrong. The ball squirted through his arms, dribbling almost apologetically into the net, and suddenly it was Ferguson on the touchline, in his classic pose, pointing at his watch and haranguing the referee Martin Atkinson to blow the final whistle.
Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, was sensitive enough not to blame Kiraly, a goalkeeper he signed as emergency cover because Thomas Sorensen and Stuart Taylor were both injured, but the mistake was so bad even Solskjaer looked vaguely embarrassed. "We're all disappointed but Gabor is distraught," said O'Neill. "It's bitterly disappointing because we had done so much to get back in the game. He was feeling pretty good at half-time because he had made one or two good saves, but that's the way it can go when you're in goal."
It was certainly a cruel way for Villa to go out, yet Ferguson was entitled to argue it was merited on the balance of play. "I think we deserved to go through because the number of chances we created was terrific," he said. "I was thinking about it being a replay and wondering whether Villa might sign anyone beforehand. But with Ole on the pitch you know you've always got a chance of scoring."
Rooney, in particular, will be indebted to Solskjaer's knack of scoring late, decisive goals. The England striker had another difficult afternoon and was fortunate to get away with a couple of off-the-ball kicks, first at Gavin McCann and then Liam Ridgewell, with the score at 1-1. Had he be feeling vindictive O'Neill might even have argued that the man who would go on to set up the decisive goal should have been sent off.
Strikers brought up in middling coastal towns in Scandinavia, who have decisively altered a European Cup final and who are approaching the end of their careers; there is quite a lot to link Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to Henrik Larsson. One has become a hero of Old Trafford over the course of 10 years, the other could do the same in as many weeks.
It is unlikely that Larsson will spark the tidal wave of affection Solskjaer generates merely by warming up, but a debut in which their goals saw Manchester United through to the fourth round of the FA Cup was deeply impressive and not just because he scored.
This was Larsson's first game for two months, and since turning the European Cup final away from Arsenal he had been playing in the relatively undemanding environment of Swedish football. However, his last few games for Helsingborgs, in which they won the Swedish equivalent of the FA Cup, had been inspired and at Old Trafford he picked up where he had left off.
Larsson had displayed some delightful touches before he broke through – not least a little flick for Wayne Rooney to run on to, plus a shot when clear through that struck Gabor Kiraly's trailing leg.
Through his manager's eyes he displayed perfectly the knack of when to run and how to time it. These moves would have been familiar to Martin O'Neill from their time together at Celtic and, watching the certainty of his finishing, it seemed strange to think that until his belated move to Barcelona virtually all of his career had been spent at Parkhead or Feyenoord's De Kuip. Grand, evocative stadiums, yes, but not at the centre of European football.
His goal, like much of what United produced yesterday, was delightfully worked. It involved Michael Carrick, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney, three footballers costing £58 million between them, and the final pass wrong-footed three Villa defenders, allowing Larsson to tee up the ball and drive it past Kiraly.
Since Villa's victory over United in the 1957 final, Villa had played four more FA Cup ties against United and lost the lot, and in three of those four seasons United had finished up with the trophy.
If they find themselves at Wembley again, the only regret must be that Larsson will be back in Sweden playing in front of crowds a seventh of the size. Unless, like his manager, he finds Old Trafford too hard to give up.
Henrik Larsson and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer yesterday proved they are still two of the deadliest snipers in the game.
Even at a combined age of 68, the Scandinavian duo were too sprightly for Martin O'Neill's battling Villa troops.
Swedish superstar Larsson struck on his debut to fire Manchester United into the lead in this third-round scrap at Old Trafford.
But sub Solskjaer was needed to grab an injury-time winner after Milan Baros had scored a shock equaliser for the Midlanders.
Norwegian ace Solskjaer, at 33, is a veteran striker who knows exactly where the goal is — but yesterday he required the help of a blundering Gabor Kiraly.
Solskjaer's injury-time shot was hard, low and on target.
He had bought the ticket and won the raffle as Kiraly — on loan from Crystal Palace — allowed the ball to slide under him.
It was Solskjaer's 124th goal in 350 United games, although 140 of those have been as sub.
Boss Alex Ferguson has always said Solskjaer has a knack of studying a game from the bench — so he knows what to do when he comes on.
Perhaps this time he had seen something in Kiraly getting down to low shots. Maybe he knew the Hungarian's pyjama bottoms would restrict his dive.