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Serie A heavyweights head-to-head

50-50 Challenge 2 days ago
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Jan 1, 2013

RVP class lifts United once more

He could be the difference, Roberto Mancini said, and there was something different. Robin van Persie deployed his hitherto lesser-used right foot to deliver two goals, one wonderfully. Yet in every other respect he was the same. The Premier League's leading scorer in 2011 and 2012 started 2013 in the same vein. He is in the goal machine who combines efficiency with artistry.

The stylist's statistics are improbable. Rewind a few years, and they might have been deemed impossible. In the days before the boundaries of goal scoring were extended by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the hallmark of a class striker was his ability to score a goal every other game. Not now. Van Persie has 64 in 76 Premier League games.

His Manchester United career has already included 16 goals and six assists in 21 matches. As scorer or supplier, he has provided more than a goal per game. In Tuesday's 4-0 win, as United gained a modicum of revenge for the April defeat at the DW Stadium that helped cost them the title, there was more evidence to support Mancini's theory that van Persie could ensure the crown returns to Old Trafford this season.

Above and beyond the blur of numbers, however, are the images. When the facts fade from memories, Wigan defender Ivan Ramis may still recall how he ended up lying on his backside, facing in the wrong direction, before goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi was defeated by a shot curled beyond him. "His play for his first goal was absolutely magnificent: his turn, his balance, no drawback. It was a really good goal," Sir Alex Ferguson said.

His paeans to van Persie have become a weekly occurrence. With every game and every goal comes a further piece of praise, suggesting a clinical, classy striker is the best retirement present an aging manager can receive.

"We knew we were getting a major player who would make a difference to the team," Ferguson added. "He came to us at the very peak of his career."

In contrast, Javier Hernandez conformed to United's usual blueprint of trying to identify talent. The £6.9 million paid to Chivas ranks as one of Ferguson's finer pieces of business. A predator was purchased, and, often as the manager likens his current quartet of strikers to the class of 1999, there is only one direct comparison: Hernandez to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

"Chicharito, as you know since the day he came, is a penalty-box player," Ferguson said, and indeed all 31 of his league goals have come inside the area. "He is tremendous; he latches on to things."

He did when Al-Habsi parried Patrice Evra's shot, burying the rebound. He did again when van Persie's free kick hit the Wigan wall, displaying the sharpest of instincts to swivel and shoot past the goalkeeper.

"There were second phases of two set plays where we reacted too lethargically," Roberto Martinez said, lamenting Wigan's inability to prevent Hernandez's brace. They were moments to sum up the fatigue of an exhausted side -- Athletic proving a particularly inappropriate suffix -- that lacked United's ability to rotate. Facing the league leaders as the fourth game in 11 days -- with seven men having started every one and two others only semi-fit -- was, Martinez felt, "unfair."

It was certainly unhappy, van Persie finishing from Danny Welbeck's cross to give United twin 4-0 wins over Wigan this season, 16 victories in 17 meetings overall and an aggregate score of 54-5 in their meetings. Yet the figure that probably gave Ferguson the most pleasure was the zero in the goals-against column. "We're delighted with that," he said.

His side had been strangers to clean sheets before keeping two in as many games. This was only endangered when a fractionally offside Arouna Kone lifted a shot into the roof of the net. The Ivorian was the exception to the rule in a tired Wigan display: When he sped past Ryan Giggs, the veteran pulling out of a challenge to spare himself a booking, Giggs looked his 39 years.

Otherwise, however, the modern-day Stanley Matthews was a sprightly presence, providing teasing crosses and inch-perfect passes. There are times this season when Giggs has looked in irreversible decline, but this was not one of them.

It was four-and-a-half years earlier that he scored at the DW Stadium to clinch the title for United and equal Sir Bobby Charlton's appearance record. Then it seemed his career, like Ferguson's, might be entering its final phase. Now he is in his 40th year, the manager in his 72nd. Still they go on, chasing their 13th titles. If 2013 is like 2011 and 2012 for van Persie, it could be reminiscent of most years in the past two decades for the old-timers.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Javier Hernandez. It has hardly mattered for United that Wayne Rooney has missed the past three games. His Mexican understudy scored the winner against Newcastle and was involved in the first three goals at Wigan, including a rare assist for van Persie's spectacular effort.

WIGAN VERDICT: If a defeat was predictable, it nonetheless showed how important Saturday's win at Aston Villa was. Martinez's squad has been stretched to the limit, and the manager substituted defenders Gary Caldwell and Ramis for fear that, after recovering from injury, they risked being sidelined again. A further worry is that it was the lively Kone's last league game before he departs for the African Nations Cup.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Michael Carrick was quietly excellent, giving United a platform to play in midfield, and Ferguson suggested he and Evra, who have started all four Christmas games, will be rested for the FA Cup tie at West Ham. Presumably Jonny Evans also will be. Chris Smalling, a possible replacement then, was perhaps fortunate to escape a red card for hauling back Kone when he seemed to be the last man.

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