Van Persie reprises matchwinner role
So frequent are the anniversaries and landmarks at Old Trafford that Manchester United rarely need an excuse to reminisce about bygone days. Reasons aplenty are provided anyway. Yet, amid comparisons with the past, they can be catapulted back to the present.
This week marked two decades since Eric Cantona crossed the Pennines to swap one United for another. Twenty years on, the No. 20 in search of the 20th title for the Red Devils scored the only goal against West Ham. This is United's 20-20-20 vision. Cantona was the catalyst for all that followed, the man who brought Sir Alex Ferguson's first title. Robin van Persie may have been bought to secure his last.
He will never be the greatest piece of business of the Scot's reign but should United reclaim their crown from Manchester City, the Dutchman may prove the season's most significant signing. The common denominator between the two is class. But unlike the leftfield move for Cantona, there was no flash of inspiration required to think of Van Persie. The only unorthodoxy in the deal was that Arsenal would sell to United.
Ferguson's preferred model is to buy young but exceptions have been made for strikers, from Cantona to Van Persie, via Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Dimitar Berbatov and the short-term signing Henrik Larsson. Of them all, Van Persie may have represented the least risk. His contribution can be measured in goals. They were always going to come.
The Premier League nonpareil can decide nondescript games. The drama on an uneventful evening at Old Trafford came quickly, Van Persie scoring the fastest goal in a league match at Old Trafford for 11 years since another Dutchman, Van Nistelrooy, gave United a flying start against Southampton.
But in a side of sluggish starters, he is the anomaly. Ferguson's side tend to concede first unless Van Persie scores early. He has three goals in the opening 10 minutes of games at Old Trafford, all against London teams. This is his form of capital punishment.
"He is a quality player," said Sam Allardyce, the beaten manager. "He is going to score 20-odd goals for Man United, maybe 30." A ninth of the league campaign came when he accepted a pass from a former Hammer, Michael Carrick. Van Persie then produced a delightful turn to baffle Winston Reid followed by a more fortunate finish, an attempted lob looping up off the despairing James Collins and, as if in slow motion, leaving Jussi Jaaskelainen stranded. After 33 seconds, United had their 33rd league goal of the season.
After three games without a goal, a drought by his standards, Van Persie was back in business. And thereafter, remarkably little happened. With a goal at the start and precious few highlights, it was the antithesis of many a more memorable United match. At the Theatre of Dreams, plenty were in danger of dozing off.
"Whether or not Man United have played to their potential, they have won," said Allardyce. "They have a nasty habit of that." Ferguson added: "We never finished them off."
Indeed, the rejuvenated Jaaskelainen displayed his athleticism to deny Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney as the Mancunian United never kicked on. The London variant rarely threatened a leveller. They seemed content with the respectability of a 1-0 defeat until a late flurry when Carlton Cole swivelled and shot and Anders Lindegaard saved and when the substitute Modibo Maiga troubled the hosts with his pace.
It was, in short, a routine home win. Ferguson, as he tends to do, in such games, took the chance to perm from his sizeable squad. With the rare luxury of four fit central defenders, Rio Ferdinand had a night off. With an unusual shortage of wingers, Ferguson brought back his midfield diamond for 65 minutes when its downsides - the way the full-backs are left exposed - were apparent.
They coped, however. "Rafa [Rafael da Silva] was fantastic," added Ferguson, similarly pleased with his central defenders. "[Jonny] Evans and [Chris] Smalling had fantastic nights. West Ham made it difficult for us."
Allardyce's teams pride themselves on being awkward. "Defensive solidarity in this league is going to win points in this league," the manager said. "We haven't got the strike force Manchester United have got."
They did, though, have a £35 million forward, in the borrowed Andy Carroll. Van Persie arrived for a lower price and with a higher reputation. In a season of high scorelines, a 1-0 win has a rarity. But they have won titles with one-goal victories in the past. Especially in Cantona's defining season of 1995-96. Despite the lack of action on this occasion, there might just be an action replay.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Anderson - In a game where no one was outstanding, the Brazilian was decent on his first league start for three months. Anderson played the two most inventive passes of the first half and, while he is a squat figure, he is unusual in bringing drive to the centre of midfield, a department where United can have more elegancy than energy.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Uninspired. Several wasted an opportunity to impress with Tom Cleverley an insubstantial figure in the midfield and Hernandez, granted a start, seeming a better substitute. Ashley Young, meanwhile, was an ineffective replacement. When fit, Antonio Valencia should be parachuted back into the team to add the width they lacked.
WEST HAM VERDICT: Both Ferguson and Allardyce praised the Hammers for their defensive organisation and Collins was particularly impressive. When the West Ham manager replaced Carroll, Matt Jarvis and Mohamed Diame, it seemed he was saving them for Saturday's derby with Chelsea. It is their toughest week of the season but Allardyce took solace from the fact his side did not capitulate after the early concession.