x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Robin van Persie is the difference

The Manchester United forward was always destined to end up at Etihad Stadium.

Robin van Persie has scored 10 league goals since joining Manchester United in August. Manchester City were also interested in signing the Dutch striker from Arsenal. Dylan Martinez / Reuters
Robin van Persie has scored 10 league goals since joining Manchester United in August. Manchester City were also interested in signing the Dutch striker from Arsenal. Dylan Martinez / Reuters

Robin van Persie was always destined to end up at Etihad Stadium today. It was just a question of whether he was wearing red or blue. When the Dutchman decided to leave Arsenal, his two premier suitors were the twin halves of Manchester. Juventus expressed an interest but all roads led north for the Arsenal captain.

Roberto Mancini is an admirer, as he generally is of all world-class talents. The path from Emirates to Etihad Stadium is well trod, with Van Persie's former colleagues Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri all decamping to City previously. Ever contrary, the Dutchman looked elsewhere in Manchester.

Sir Alex Ferguson abandoned the straitjacket he had forced himself to don during a spell of almost four years when he did not buy a player over the age of 26. Enter the £24 million (Dh141.3m) 29 year old.

Van Persie, in an idiosyncratic explanation, said: "When I have to make tough decisions in my life I listen to the little boy inside me. That little boy was screaming 'Manchester United.'"

The double footballer of the year will encounter screaming City fans today as arguably the most significant player in the country. Subtract his 10 league goals and United would have 14 fewer points and be mid-table.

Remove the 30 he delivered for Arsenal last season and they would have been in the lower half of the league, rather than third place. Mancini has complained his strikers "can't score". Van Persie can't stop scoring. And his importance extends beyond simply his goal tally.

"Van Persie is not just contributing to the team," said Ferguson. "He is unbelievable with his intelligence and his maturity. He is improving other players. He has given us a different perspective of the game. There are different opportunities."

One is for Wayne Rooney to man the flanks, as he did towards the end of Cristiano Ronaldo's time at Old Trafford when the Englishman, recognising the Portuguese was the match-winner in chief, adopted a mantra of selfless sacrifice.

Rooney may be on the right wing today. Van Persie, without doubt, will be leading the line.

And yet he is a forward with a difference.

"He's a different type of striker to what we have had at the club before," said Danny Welbeck.

He, like Rooney, is a striker who has been forced to play in a wider role. Van Persie is the exception rather than the norm, the winger converted into a goalscorer. It is a product of Arsene Wenger's unique model.

Like Thierry Henry before him, he was footballer first, goalscorer second. And gallingly for those who specialised in scoring from the off, he has proved prolific.

"He is a world-class striker," Welbeck added. "But it is not just his goalscoring form but the way he has played all around the pitch."

Indeed, following Wenger's addition to the footballing vocabulary, Van Persie describes himself as "a nine-and-a-half", combining the flair of a No 10 with the finishing of a No 9.

And barely four months into life at Old Trafford, the man City wanted is already looking the quintessential United player.

"I'm coming with a big smile to work every day," he said.

But he is showing his steel. While quality is a prerequisite, nothing defines a Ferguson player quite like a role in United's trademark comebacks and none has contributed more than Van Persie. He opened his account with an equaliser against Fulham. The following week, he delivered a decisive hat-trick at Southampton.

There was a winner at Liverpool, a pressure penalty nervelessly converted, and even, lost amid the mayhem at the Madejski Stadium last week, the crucial goal against Reading.

As City have lamented the draws that have left them playing catch-up in the title race, they can wonder if Van Persie would have made the difference.

Today, if only for 90 minutes, they have to ensure he does not.



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