Saha May Hold Key

Last updated : 09 August 2007 By Ed
Rob Smyth takes a look at United's 'forgotten' striker.

Every summer, when they set off for another money-spinning pre-season tour, Manchester United go globetrotting. This summer they've gone Globetrotting, gathering a pool of showstopping attacking talent as exciting as any in the club's history. Anderson, Nani, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and, eventually, Carlos Tevez.

It all means that Louis Saha, arguably the single most important factor in United regaining the Premiership last season, has become the forgotten man of Old Trafford. Worse still, he has been ruthlessly ostracised. He is currently out with a knee injury (nobody seems to know - or care - when he'll be back), but Saha had long since been pushed to the margins: reportedly distrusted by his manager and team-mates while also being spoofed and viciously abused by many fans. That's the thanks you get.

Few involved with the club doubt Saha's quality, but patience has run dry with the apparent fragility of his body and, perhaps more importantly, the alleged fragility of his mind. Yet the problems started not with Saha's injuries but with Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to give priority to his short-term signing Henrik Larsson last winter. By the time Larsson had gone Saha was injured and then, to Ferguson's considerable chagrin, continued to plead that he was not 100% fit after a hamstring strain. To many, he simply didn't have the arsehole to cope with squeaky-bum time - a perception that had lurked since his horribly predictable last-minute penalty miss at Celtic in the Champions League earlier in the season.

This may be so, but it is a dangerous assumption and certainly unfair to tar a man's professional reputation on the basis of supposition. However, the verdict on Saha has apparently been passed and met with widespread approval. Having benefited from Ruud van Nistelrooy's banishment at the hands of Ferguson, he cannot be completely surprised - it would be like the bit on the side who graduates to partner status and then wonders why his beloved is still playing away. Ferguson operates with the mercilessness of a Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano - when a relationship breaks down, the other party is dead to him. There will only ever be one winner, and you could almost make a high-class team from those who have lost: Bosnich, Stam, Heinze, Keane, Beckham, Kanchelskis, Ince, Van Nistelrooy. And now, it would seem, Saha.

The dismissal of Saha is arguably premature, not to mention callous; he was seemingly always injured for his first two years at Old Trafford, but has been available for all bar a handful of United's games over the last 18 months. And he was absolutely integral to the club's unexpected renaissance.

That swagger was long gone by the time United limped over the line in last season's title race. And while it is an oversimplification to attribute this purely to the absence of Saha - a small squad was knackered, and the raised stakes inevitably led to a reduced sense of freedom - the fact remains that United are an infinitely better side with Saha in the team.

He is also the only proper centre-forward United have. Tevez, like Rooney and Ronaldo, is an unfettered soul, at his best going where his instincts take him. Saha is always on the move but it is within the confines of a specific role and, like in the days of Andy Cole, United just look right when he plays. Ferguson has gone all round their world in pursuit of the perfect attack, but the best solution might just be on his doorstep.