Looking back on it, it shouldn’t have been surprising that Edinson Cavani absolutely tore up an Italian club on Thursday. The Uruguayan striker used to terrorize Serie A defenses as part of Napoli in the early part of last decade, and though it’s been eight years since he wore those light blue kits, the man knows how to ruin an Italian side’s day. The unlucky recipient of Cavani’s bombardment this time was Roma, Manchester United’s Europa League semifinal opponent, who walked into halftime up 2–1 and left Old Trafford down an insurmountable 6-2, thanks to five goal contributions from Cavani.
Even at 34 years old, Cavani gives United something it doesn’t really have: a true center forward. Even though he doesn’t have the same athleticism he did when he was dominating in Italy, or even in his stint at Paris Saint-Germain that made him the club’s all-time top scorer, he still has both his preternatural ability to find the ball in the box and his trademark intensity that makes every game feel like life or death.
When Cavani joined United in October, it was reasonable to expect that he would flame out like so many reclamation projects that had traveled to the red side of Manchester in recent years. Alexis Sánchez, Radamel Falcao, Ángel Di María, Víctor Valdés … the list could go on. The one difference is that, unlike most of the aforementioned names, Cavani wasn’t really washed when he joined United. His exit from Paris had more to do with salary and team construction concerns than him totally falling off as a player. In his last PSG season playing a regular amount of games, Cavani scored 18 goals in 20 league appearances, or a goal every 93 minutes. That rate has slowed this season at United—8 in 22, or one every 143 minutes—but it’s still a very strong pace. And he showed on Thursday that he can still hit his old heights when things break right.
His first goal was pure Cavani. He played a perfect one-two with Bruno Fernandes, then ran into open space and absolutely thundered the ball into the top right corner off a first touch. Roma’s substitute goalkeeper Antonio Mirante didn’t even move:
The second goal was less flashy, though it was a perfect example of a poacher’s goal, as he gravitated to a few feet away from Mirante as the goalie spilled a shot from Aaron Wan-Bissaka directly onto Cavani’s boot. More importantly, though, that goal reestablished United’s lead at 3–2. To say that Cavani alone brought the Red Devils back from a disappointing first half wouldn’t tell the full story of the game, but it’s also not wholly inaccurate.
Cavani also helped end the tie afterwards, drawing a questionable penalty on former United defender Chris Smalling, and then playing a fantastic assist for Mason Greenwood that demonstrated that Cavani has never been just a goalscorer:
In every sense of the phrase, Cavani is a complete striker, capable of link-up play, wonderstrikes, and workman’s tallies. His talents have gone a little under-appreciated throughout what has been a lengthy and incredible career, one that was spent mostly in the shadows of a second-tier Italian team—at least in terms of name recognition, since Napoli was very good on the field when he was there—and in the so-called farmer’s league of Ligue 1.
It’s fortunate, then, that he’s now plying his trade at one of the biggest clubs in the world, because even at 34, even as more of a rotation player than a regular starter, Cavani is still capable of completely dominating a game. It might not be the last time he does that in the Manchester red, either, since news broke shortly after his perfect performance that he would stay on at United for at least one more season. That’s one more season to cement his legacy, one that should never have been in doubt but which now has enough eyeballs on it to be truly recognized. Edinson Cavani finally has a stage befitting of his immense talent, and United is all the scarier for it.
Correction (1:30 p.m. ET): The article previously stated that Roma’s goalkeeper at the time of Cavani’s first goal was Pau López. It was actually Antonio Mirante. This has been corrected above.