Football Features

Batistuta x Cantona? The legendary strike partnerships we never got to see

By Harry Edwards

Published: 15:14, 8 September 2019

Football has been blessed with some great strike partnerships throughout the years.

In the Premier League there has been Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton among many others. Abroad, we have enjoyed the likes of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, Filippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Del Piero and Ronaldo and Raul to name but a few modern pairs.

But football has also gone so close to securing more dream duos, only for eye-catching rumours to fail to materialise or potential moves to fall through.

So what of these strike partnerships that almost were? We’ve picked out five legendary duos we feel would have gone down in history if they had linked up on the pitch.

Gabriel Batistuta x Eric Cantona (Manchester United)

Many a fine player has been linked with Manchester United over the years, especially when the Red Devils were at their peak towards the end of the 1990s, dominating the early seasons of the Premier League.

It will come as no surprise, then, to see that Argentina great Gabriel Batistuta was linked with a move to Old Trafford in the mid-1990s. After some initial success in his native leagues, Batistuta signed for Fiorentina in 1991 and made a name for himself as one of the deadliest strikers of his age – at a time when Serie A was flying high.

A move to Manchester United at his peak would have seen the man dubbed ‘Batigol’ paired with a striker with talent flowing out of all of his pores, and the charisma to match.

In seven seasons with Manchester United, Eric Cantona scored 79 goals and a partnership alongside Batistuta could have brought a lot more. But it wasn’t to be, with Batistuta staying at Fiorentina until 2000 when he left for Serie A rivals Roma.

And according to the man himself, United put an offer in for his services, but he turned down the move.

“I never enjoyed being the star-man because as soon as you become the focal point of the team, you assume an extra burden of responsibility,” he told the America Business Forum in February 2019.

“I received many offers namely from Real Madrid, Manchester United and Milan, but I preferred the tranquility of playing for Fiorentina.

“If I had gone to Madrid, I would have scored more than 200 goals, but I knew I would have got bored. The same thing would have happened to me at Milan.

“Although I have never won a major trophy, I consider myself a winner because I helped Fiorentina to compete with the big boys.”

United’s loss was Fiorentina’s gain, with Batistuta helping them to win the Coppa Italia in 1996 before Serie A success with Roma.

Samuel Eto’o x Dennis Bergkamp (Arsenal)

Long before he turned out for Chelsea and Everton, Samuel Eto’o was being linked with a Premier League move in his prime.

The Cameroonian, who recently announced his retirement at the age of 38, is widely regarded as one of the best strikers of all time, scoring goals for fun while at Barcelona. But Eto’o’s career could have been so different but for one conversation.

After failing to break into Real Madrid’s first team, Eto’o was sent on loan to Real Mallorca in the first half of 2000. But he was about to leave Spain altogether that summer and looked set to sign for Arsenal, until a conversation with Luis Aragones persuaded him to join Mallorca permanently.

“I met Luis at a crucial moment in my life where I had to take the right direction – and thanks to him I did,” Eto’o said in 2013.

“I was about to sign that very afternoon at Arsenal and maybe I would never have been the player I am today. Luis picked me, then I ended up joining Barcelona. That decision changed everything.”

Aragones’ words of wisdom saw football fans miss out on a mouthwatering link up between Eto’o and Bergkamp.

Capable of playing both as a striker and a supporting forward, Bergkamp’s could have formed a partnership to remember with Eto’o with the pair playing off each other at the right moments.

Throw a certain Mr. Henry into the mix too – who Eto’o did later play with at Barcelona – and Arsenal could have had an unbeatable attack on their hands.

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Sergio Aguero x Didier Drogba (Chelsea)

Before he became Manchester City’s all-time top scorer, it looked as though Sergio Aguero would be making his way to the Premier League with Chelsea.

During the 2009/10 season, the Argentina international was heavily linked with joining Chelsea’s star-studded squad. Blues fans were given a taste of what he could do for them as he scored twice against Chelsea in the Champions League.

Rumours reached their peak in April 2010 when Aguero hinted at a move to Chelsea and the prospect of linking up with Frank Lampard and another Blues legend – Didier Drogba.

“Chelsea are a great club,” he said. “They have become one of the most feared in Europe over recent years.

“I look at players like Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard and they have been – and still are – the best players in their positions in the world. I could really learn from players like that, there is no doubt.

“London would be a really amazing city to live in as well, myself and my wife could be really happy there. Carlos Tevez is doing really well at Manchester City but, for me, it is about joining a club who are ready to challenge for honours. City are not ready yet.”

With Carlo Ancelotti at the helm, Chelsea would have undoubtedly played a two-man strike force with Drogba and Aguero – possibly becoming the best ever the Premier League has seen.

In his two spells at Chelsea, Drogba scored 104 Premier League goals, while Aguero is currently on 170 – having joined Man City one year after initially appearing to snub them.

Andriy Shevchenko x Patrick Kluivert (Barcelona)

Despite struggling in the Premier League with Chelsea, Andriy Shevchenko should still be remembered as a goalscoring great for his exploits with Dynamo Kyiv, AC Milan and Ukraine.

The striker scored 175 goals in 322 games for AC Milan and his performances saw Shevchenko win the 2004 Ballon d’Or, while also finishing third in 1999 and 2000. But things could have been so different for Shevchenko had he opted against the Milan move.

Weighing up his options for a next step after Dynamo Kyiv, Shevchenko was faced with the choice of Barcelona, Manchester United or Milan.

Had he signed for United, the striker could have broken the Dwight Yorke x Andy Cole partnership, but a move to Barcelona would have brought an exciting duo to the game too.

In the summer of 1999, Patrick Kluivert had just come off the back of a good Barcelona debut campaign, combining with Rivaldo. He followed that up by finishing the 1999/2000 season as Barcelona’s top league scorer with 15, but that could have been so much more had he been playing alongside Shevchenko.

Signing Shevchenko to accompany Kluivert could have also prevented Barcelona from their five-year trophy drought between 1999 and 2004 – when the Dutchman left for Newcastle United.

But, looking back on his club career in 2009, Shevchenko revealed he had no regrets from picking Milan.

“I had the opportunity to play for Barça and Manchester United when I was 22, but I chose Milan,” he said.

“And the club were successful, winning everything possible – including the Champions League – and I won the Ballon d’Or. I’m proud of my career.”

David Villa x Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

In the summer of 2009, Real Madrid were about to embark on massive changes, as the return of Florentino Perez brought a second Galacticos era, and boy did he start big.

Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo were brought in for £56m and £80m respectively, with the latter breaking the transfer record at the time – Real would break it again in 2013 to sign Gareth Bale.

But if Perez had his way, David Villa would have also joined the rebuild at Real Madrid, as the Spanish striker was being linked with a move away from Valencia – who were suffering with crippling debt at the time.

With the choice between Madrid and Chelsea, Villa reportedly chose Los Blancos, with one of the Blues scouts at the time saying: “The answer [from Valencia] was ‘no’ because negotiations with Real Madrid are very advanced.

“So there’s no possibility that Villa will go to Chelsea because he wants to go to Real Madrid.”

And Perez had also been talking of Villa as if he were already a shoo-in to join the Real revolution.

He said: “Everything must be done in a friendly and co-operative way and we have very good relations with Valencia. Things need to be done calmly, be explained well and so that everybody is happy. We have the whole of the summer ahead of us.

“Players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, who are Ballon d`Or or FIFA World Player of the Year winners, are players that are called investment players.

“Real Madrid cannot pay these quantities of money for every player. This is not to put down Villa. Players who have won these awards have an international impact. I think Villa is an excellent player, but he is a footballer who we have to accommodate into our project.”

However, no move materialised and Villa joined Barcelona a year later, eventually being permanently switched to a winger.