x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Robin van Persie X-factor again

Dutchman scores against his former club to reduce deficit between both sides, writes Richard Jolly.

Robin van Persie, centre, delivered the biggest blow yet to Arsenal's Premier League title hopes on Sunday night. Paul Ellis / AFP
Robin van Persie, centre, delivered the biggest blow yet to Arsenal's Premier League title hopes on Sunday night. Paul Ellis / AFP

MANCHESTER // If, as Arsene Wenger suggested, Robin van Persie is still “an Arsenal man”, he has a funny way of showing it.

Once the saviour of the North London club, he is now their scourge. The greatest blow to Arsenal’s chances of becoming champions for the first time since 2003/04 was inflicted by their former hero as Van Persie, the pivotal figure as Manchester United won the Premier League title last season, preserved their hopes of retaining their crown.

Had Arsenal won, they would have boasted a seemingly insurmountable lead over United, but that served to galvanise David Moyes’s men.

“We couldn’t let Arsenal get 11 points ahead of us,” Wayne Rooney said. “We had to win at all costs.”

They did and a first defeat on the road since March — ending an extraordinary run of 14 wins in 15 unbeaten games — leaves Arsenal a mere five points ahead of United. This was a true six-pointer and the benefits of victory extended even beyond the significance in the title race.

“It was a great weekend,” said a self-deprecating Moyes. “We’ve not had too many of them.”

Indeed, while he would not admit it, it was a momentous occasion personally. His first three league meetings with title rivals – Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City – produced a solitary point and his record in marquee matches at Everton was undistinguished. United managers can be judged on how they fare on the major occasions and, for the first time, Moyes prospered.

“It’s another step in the right direction for us,” he said. He was more effusive about the match-winner.

“Great players score great goals in big games and he is a great player.”

Wenger’s pre-match assessment of Van Persie’s allegiances was evidently not shared by the travelling Arsenal supporters, who barracked him mercilessly and his commitment to a newer cause has never been in doubt. A year ago, Van Persie scored three minutes into his first reunion with Arsenal. His goal took a little longer coming on Sunday but was equally invaluable.

He leapt above Olivier Giroud to meet Rooney’s corner with an inch-perfect header, with enough elevation to clear Kieran Gibbs, who was positioned on the goal line.

“It was disappointing to lose a goal like that,” Wenger said.

It was planned, Rooney suggested.

“Arsenal have got a lot of smaller players in the team and we thought that could be an opportunity,” he said.

It was taken and separated high-energy stalemate from a determined effort to protect their lead.

Indeed, their greatest concern during that time was the loss of Nemanja Vidic, clattered as David de Gea’s hip collided with his head, and replaced by Tom Cleverley. The Serb was taken to hospital for a scan and United required a reshuffle. It meant Phil Jones, who had policed Mesut Ozil so assiduously in the midfield, was relocated to the defence and Arsenal’s creator was liberated.

Nonetheless, this was a tale of possession without penetration from Arsenal; it is a familiar criticism of them from past seasons, if not this.

And apart from injuring Vidic, De Gea was a spectator for long periods. The first shot on target, from Aaron Ramsey, came in the 59th minute and he also fielded Gibbs’s long-range volley.

“We lacked that quality in the final ball,” Wenger said.

Indeed, United came closer to scoring a second goal, Rooney fooling Bacary Sagna with a deft touch before angling a shot just wide and Chris Smalling, who also excelled in defence, stooping to head just wide. And so Arsenal, who have not won at Old Trafford since 2006, suffered their annual defeat. But if past losses were often expected this, like a United win, had a greater element of surprise.

“Manchester United were champions last year and there’s a lot of people written them off very quickly,” said Moyes. “But hopefully by the end of the season we will not be too far off.”