Van Persie again bares his match-saving bite
The time has come. After only half a season, Robin van Persie's importance to Manchester United is such that it is time to anoint him with a new title. From now on, with a nod to Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," he should be hereafter referred to as "The Wolf."
The Wolf, played by Harvey Keitel, was a legendary figure called upon to extract his fellow members of the criminal fraternity from all manner of apparently irredeemable positions. The mere suggestion someone might be able to send in The Wolf to save them inspired equal feelings of joy and awe.
So it was that Sir Alex Ferguson, seeing his team 2-1 down to West Ham United in the FA Cup on Saturday, sent in The Wolf. Van Persie, the Premier League's leading scorer, was called from the bench, with his help greatly needed. Though his team trailed by only a goal, they looked increasingly listless, and seemed to be drifting to a frustrating defeat.
How different this was from the opening stages, when, for the first 25 minutes, Manchester United created a fine momentum which saw them take the lead. Ferguson had arranged the midfield in a diamond -- Paul Scholes at its base, Tom Cleverley and Rafael on its left and right flanks, and Shinji Kagawa at its tip -- which fed an attack of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez.
Their swift passing and movement carefully pried apart West Ham's diligent defence, and the first goal, by Cleverley, was a fitting reward for their efforts. Hernandez, whose playmaking has notably improved this season, sprinted down the right wing and then cut the ball across the face of goal where Cleverley, cantering into the area all by himself, took one touch to curl the ball elegantly home.
This was not to be a regal procession to victory, though. Manchester United keeper Nemanja Vidic was to look ring-rusty all game, and was caught out five minutes later when Joe Cole, the returning hero on his debut, sent a dipping cross into the area. There it was met by the head of James Collins, who restored parity with a soaring header, and West Ham thereafter acquitted themselves increasingly well.
When they took the lead, with half an hour to go, it was little surprise. Cole, seeing no need to change a winning formula, again sent the ball in from the left, where Collins again obliged with a header. Upton Park was in ecstasy.
In the next 20 minutes, Sir Alex brought on three substitutes, two of whom would change the course of the match. The first introduction, an ineffectual one, was that of Antonio Valencia, who came on for Scholes but who is still unfortunately struggling for form. The next two, however, were Ryan Giggs and The Wolf, replacing Smalling and Hernandez, who would combine for the sublime equaliser.
The goal arrived, in the style of all Manchester United comebacks, very, very late: so late that David Beckham and his children, who had been watching from a box, had already left the ground. Sadly, they were to miss one of the top goals of this or any other season.
With three minutes left in injury time, the ball rattled across the Upton Park turf to Giggs, just inside his own half. Looking up, he saw van Persie 60 yards distant, sprinting beyond his marker; and so, on the half-volley, he hit a first-time ball of such exquisite draw that it could have graced the closing holes of the Ryder Cup.
The ball swerved into the path of van Persie, who met it with a first touch that defied belief. Moving at close to full speed, he somehow caught the pass on the outside of his left foot and then pushed it past the last man in the next motion. It was a miraculous piece of control, which he then did justice by thrashing the ball into the far corner with his right foot.
Shortly after, the whistle, and West Ham United were left not with a romantic victory, but with a replay; and Manchester United, meanwhile, were left with a piece of highlight film to rank alongside anything they have created to date. A 2-2 draw, courtesy of Giggs and The Wolf, the latter of whom will probably be redeeming his club for several seasons to come.