Manchester United’s Edinson Cavani a natural-born winner on a hot streak

Manchester United’s Edinson Cavani a natural-born winner on a hot streak

When Edinson Cavani’s 40-yard finish arrowed over Fulham’s Alphonse Areola 10,000 fans inside Old Trafford were wowed by the latest evidence of the bargain free transfer the Uruguayan has proved in a debut English season.

The scintillating ninth strike in his last 10 appearances came last week. Now, as Manchester United take on Villarreal in Wednesday’s Europa League final, they have a first A-list centre-forward since Zlatan Ibrahimovic five years ago, and a player who is hot at precisely the right time.

The Cavani factor in United’s tilt at continental glory is highlighted when comparing his numbers with those of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood. Part of a quartet whose performance graph is measured (primarily) in goals, the 34-year-old from Salto is the master supreme who offers a lesson to his juniors while making the trio fight for the two other available places in attack (when the currently unfit Martial is available).

Cavani arrived in October with 341 club goals since signing for Palermo in 2007 and zero experience of the Premier League, whereas Rashford and Martial were in a sixth season on these shores, Greenwood in his third. Yet from the moment El Matador registered a maiden United strike – in the 3-1 win at Everton on 7 November (in his fifth appearance as a substitute) – the class showed.

Cavani has since scored 15 times, including in three consecutive matches twice across April and early May. In the Europa League semi-final against Roma he contributed two goals in each leg.

Sir Alex Ferguson had a shrewd eye for a deal – think Henrik Larsson, a 13-game loanee in 2006-07 – and Cavani is evidence that Ole Gunnar Solskjær shares that trait. As the No 9 who sports the famous No 7 previously worn by Cristiano Ronaldo, Bryan Robson and George Best, Cavani has burned through defences at the rate of 129 minutes for each goal, far ahead of Rashford, who has needed 192, Greenwood (254), and Martial (346). Only Bruno Fernandes – a playmaker – is anywhere close, at 159 minutes for his 28 goals, which is United’s highest tally. Cavani’s count places him third – Rashford has 21 (in 4,033 minutes) – and his five assists equal those from Martial and Greenwood, who have played 2,419 and 3,048 minutes respectively, to the Uruguayan’s 2,062.

Beyond these statistics is how Cavani has brought the rarefied air of a natural-born winner to United’s dressing room. A bulging CV shows six Ligue 1 championships with Paris Saint-Germain, a 2011 Copa América triumph with Uruguay for whom he has 51 goals in 111 internationals, plus the 200 goals that makes him the French club’s record scorer. Fernandes and Harry Maguire also have teak-tough mentalities but Cavani is the clear victor in any game of show-your-medals.

Before Villarreal walk out at the Gdansk Stadium Unai Emery’s tactics talk is sure to mention the requirement to somehow stop a man who, following United’s draw with Fulham, Solskjær instructed the rest of his team to watch in terms of how “he plays the game”.

After two victories in their past five outings United will be relieved to have a predator whose form is arguably the best in the land and who carries the aura of all elite finishers. A chance, half-chance or a keeper off his line from 40 yards: Cavani is the killer defences struggle to stymie.

Emery can ask his Villarreal team to halt Cavani as they did Arsenal in the second leg of the semi-final at the Emirates, but doing so could be impossible. A player fined £100,000 and handed a three-mach ban for an Instagram post in which he wrote “gracias negrito” in November (he apologised, and the club backed him) and who seriously considered returning to South America this summer is now a United totem who, to Solskjær’s relief, has performed a U-turn and signed for another year.

He is key to United’s hopes on Wednesday and to the culture Solskjær builds in which vaulting ambition centred around a club-first ethos is the main tenet. As Cavani says: “I think that if you set yourself targets, if you really want something, if you focus on something that you really want to achieve for yourself and for your side, you can achieve it. You can improve, you can grow as a player, you can be even better.”

Four long years have passed since United last hoisted a trophy. When Cavani’s teammates look across at him at kick-off on Wednesday they will see a footballer who knows how to turn potential into the rare metal of success. The young hopeful who grew his hair out to mimic his childhood hero, Gabriel Batistuta, and who was a playmaking midfielder until the age of 15, can look back at a career driven by supreme self-determination.

Cavani has confessed to wishing he could be just another guy. He is not, of course, but this humbleness is as invaluable a lesson to colleagues as the pursuit of excellence. His presence alongside them is precious – nearly as much as the goal threat he carries.