x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

New team, same epic performance for Manchester United's Robin van Persie

Robin van Persie joined Manchester United before the season, led them to a league title, leads the league in scoring and should be the favourite to retain the PFA Player of the Year award, writes Richard Jolly.

After this week’s hat-trick, Robin van Persie of Manchester United is the league’s leading scorer. Phil Noble / Reuters
After this week’s hat-trick, Robin van Persie of Manchester United is the league’s leading scorer. Phil Noble / Reuters

This is the first of The National's four-part series previewing the top candiates for the PFA Player of the Year award.

It can take something special to unite the warring halves of Manchester, a city where division is the default setting. In eight months of sustained excellence, however, Robin van Persie has had Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini singing the same hymn book.

The Manchester City manager argues that the Dutchman has made the difference in the title race. The Manchester United manager knows he has.

One interpretation of Mancini's comments is that he has been seeking a convenient excuse, blaming the club's inability to recruit a player he coveted and targeted for his own shortcomings.

Yet the turning point in the title race may have been the August day when Van Persie signed for United. If not then, it was the December afternoon when he ended City's two-year unbeaten home league record. Quite simply, they are the only contenders.

After Van Persie applied the coup de grace with the hat-trick against Aston Villa to clinch the title, Ferguson was asked to consider his impact on United's season.

He paused, perhaps casting his mind back over the 12 previous seasons his side had won the league and reached a remarkable conclusion: he could not imagine anyone making more of an impression.

So, not Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo or Roy Keane. Or, for that matter, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Peter Schmeichel, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney or any of the others who have illuminated Old Trafford over the past two decades.

It is a contribution that can be measured in goals – 28 of them so far – or the difference they have made, with 25 points directly attributable to the times Van Persie put the ball in the back of the net. And yet his influence is still greater than that because the Dutchman has delivered so often in the major matches.

Besides his injury-time winner at Etihad Stadium, there was a coolly converted penalty to sink Liverpool at Anfield and the pivotal part played in both early goals when Chelsea were overcome at Stamford Bridge.

There were the early openers in the home wins over Arsenal and Liverpool and the hat-trick at Southampton to transform defeat into victory. He has been top scorer and focal point, demoting Rooney from both positions and seamlessly showing his supremacy at Old Trafford.

He manoeuvred United into a position of rare strength in the title race with a six-month spell of remarkable consistency.

He suffered a two-month break from scoring, beginning in February, but famine has swiftly given way to feast again.

Before this latest spate of goals, it was tempting to view him as a player who had been merely efficient, whereas Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez, each blessed with greater pace, is more exhilarating.

Yet as Van Persie showed against Villa on Monday, he is capable of the exquisite.

His volleyed second, plucking Rooney's lofted pass out of the Old Trafford air and dispatching it beyond Brad Guzan with an elegant swing of his left foot, showcased technical brilliance and an eye for the audacious. It may prove the season's finest goal.

He is its finest player, just as he was last year. The difference then was that his excellence came for Arsenal.

The only silverware he collected came in the form of the individual awards. He returns to Emirates Stadium, on Sunday, on course for a second successive Golden Boot and deserving to retain his crown as PFA Footballer of the Year.

In the broader scheme of things, neither matters most to him. Trading London for Manchester was an indication his ambitions stretched far beyond personal honours. Monday night's win against Villa means he is guaranteed a title winner's medal – four games early but, after nine years in England, rather late, as well.

While there is widespread acknowledgement that, over the season, United have been the outstanding team, there is greater debate about their best player.

There should not be. For the second successive season, Van Persie has been the pick of the Premier League.

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