LONDON // Arsene Wenger admitted he needs to protect his injury-prone striker Robin van Persie if Arsenal are to compete for multiple trophies come the end of the season.
The Dutch striker plundered a hat-trick at the Emirates Stadium yesterday to keep Arsenal hot on the heels of Manchester United at the top of the table and buryWigan Athletic deeper into relegation trouble.
Van Persie could even afford to make a complete hash of a penalty as he emphasised how he could prove the extra dimension for the Gunners - who are also still in the FA Cup, Champions League and Carling Cup.
Van Persie is the most natural finisher at the club, but he has been injured more often than not and, indeed, he missed the start of this season with an ankle injury. "It is down to us to use him in the right proportion of the games we play," said Wenger, the Arsenal manager.
"Robin handles it all right. He is intelligent but, of course, he wants to play.
"He has come back looking very fit and sharp. He is an important player and one we have missed too often over the past few years.
"We need him until the end of the season so it's important we protect him when we can. We have to rotate. We have choice."
Van Persie's hat-trick took his tally to six in what was only his sixth league start of the season and had it not been for a world-class display Ali al Habsi, Wigan's on-loan Oman international goalkeeper, he would have scored more.
Al Habsi, on loan from Bolton Wanderers, pulled off five stunning saves before Van Persie eventually broke the deadlock when he cleverly beat the offside flag and lashed home in the 39th minute.
Then, on the hour, Van Persie did justice to a peach of a through pass from Cesc Fabregas when he met the ball first time on the half-volley and crisply drove past al Habsi.
In the 70th minute, he lost his composure, firing wildly over the crossbar from the spot after Gary Caldwell had brought down Fabregas. The Wigan captain was sent off for third time in 13 games. But in the 85th minute, Van Persie smashed home at the near post after clever work from Theo Walcott.
The effort gained the enthusiastic approval of David Beckham, watching in the crowd and his son Romeo - who was wearing a Gunners scarf.
But as good as Arsenal were, Wigan were woeful. Just two wins in 16 is relegation form.
"Apart from our keeper, I could have made 10 changes at half time," said manager Roberto Martinez.
"We reacted better after half time but it was over when we went down to 10 men. I didn't think it was a penalty. But Cesc [Fabregas] is clever. I thought he bought the penalty and also the red card. In Spain, Italy or South America such an action is called clever but in England you call it cheating. It's a cultural thing."
The managerial moan smacked of diverting attention from a team in trouble.