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Apr 28, 2013

RVP the villain frustrates old employers

He led Arsenal with distinction and into the Champions League last season. This season "Robin's a champion", as Van Persie's new fans reminded his former devotees.

The most striking difference between Manchester United and Arsenal these days is that United expect to be champions. Arsenal's hope is to be in the Champions League. The days when the title spoils were divided between the two are now a decade ago. In the days since, Chelsea and Manchester City have become United's rivals for glory. Arsenal are underdogs, fighting for blood and honour in a rivalry that cuts one way.

This time, there was a bone of contention to fight over. Arsenal could use their former captain's departure as an inspirational tool. They rose to the occasion - but so, eventually, did Van Persie.

His every contribution would be swathed in boos. The Arsenal fans could jeer when his throwaway pass resulted in the home side's opener, scream blue murder when he was booked, howl in rage when he was brought down for a penalty and silently seethe when he converted it.

Thereafter, and perhaps as a result of a studiously observed non-celebration, the hostilities abated. A tight contest eventually drew attentions away; only at full-time did the barracking resume, and then only as something of an afterthought.

"It's more disappointed love than aggression that you get when you come back," Arsene Wenger said. "They loved him when he was here."

Van Persie's goal might well have endangered his former club's top-four pretensions. They find themselves hugely thankful that Spurs' draw at Wigan leaves matters in their hands. "We are in a position where we cannot drop points," Wenger admitted.

After an early frenzy of physical challenges and wails of rage, the panic was to be found among the finishing and final passes. United were always threatening on the break but were let down by overhit crosses by Antonio Valencia, in particular, while Arsenal's attempts were kept to long range basis or were scrappy scuffs of a bobbling ball.

"With a bit more composure, we would have won the game," Sir Alex Ferguson said, though he admitted that "Arsenal set off at a fantastic pace".

United will not now be able to be record-breakers in the sense of beating Chelsea's total of 95 points from the 2004-05 season. They will have to content themselves with the supremacy of 20 titles in total. Getting the job done is the name of their game, the points total to reach their goal hardly matters. United's greatest team, the Treble-winners of 1999, won the Premier League with just 79 points.

Sir Alex Ferguson's successes have often come through the calculation of risk. United have rarely won the league by huge margins. Once it has been completed, attentions have often wavered. The title winners of 2000-01 lost their final three matches, the champions of 2006-07 suffered a defeat that kept West Ham up. A draw here was a better result after a performance that got better as the match went on. United have little but pride to play for, but Arsenal will hope for similar efforts from the champions against Chelsea next week.

One man in particular might be doing his best to help out old friends. "He is in our dressing room at the moment," Wenger said of Van Persie's post-match activities.

Last season's Gunner of the Year was hardly in a seething pit of hate. When a stadium barely a tenth full was read out the team line-ups, his name was greeted with rancour by only those who had already wolfed down their ciabatta or swigged their reassuringly expensive liquid refreshments. Despite the fact that he had turned down a more lucrative move to Manchester City, Van Persie's supposed greed was targeted. Far less forgivably, the haters also chose to bring up a false accusation made against him in 2005; hypocrisy is no stranger in football fandom. What was once dealt with protectively or forgotten was now used as a weapon of spite.

The much-debated guard of honour for the new champions was observed well enough by many Arsenal fans, but the self-styled Clock End ultras greeted the former hero and his colleagues peevishly.

The jilted of North London were swiftly celebrating. The former captain's lacklustre pass to the wing was intercepted by Kieran Gibbs before an Arsenal passing move eventually found Theo Walcott via Tomas Rosicky. Walcott was just offside, but finished well enough to remind of his own pretensions of taking the place of Van Persie as his team's leading striker.

Van Persie's 12th-minute blaze of a half-chance into the stands was met with loud derision. Arsenal fans were going to enjoy the pathetic demise of their former captain if they could. Laurent Koscielny, an unlikely hard man, thundered into a tackle through the back of Van Persie to loud acclaim. Arsenal have often wilted under a sustained physical challenge. This time, they would be putting up their dukes and fighting for every ball.

There were even signs that Van Persie was taking the bait. An injudicious slide tackle on Per Mertesacker yielded a booking and, though it was delivered with clumsiness rather than malice, only a red would have done for some.

The crowd's righteous indignation, its volume having to do in the absence of any concerted singing, was making a mountain out of any molehill. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the modern football atmosphere, more pantomime than bear-pit.

By the end of the first half, United had rediscovered their menace. Phil Jones headed a perfect Van Persie cross wide. The man himself had a 40th-minute header saved only by Wojciech Szczesny's face, but his special moment soon arrived.

Bacary Sagna's ill-considered backpass allowed Van Persie to streak away, and he was only stopped by an equally silly tackle from the back-pedalling Frenchman. After a lengthy delay, the leading man took the spot-kick. There would be no shirking of responsibility. He converted with alacrity, reminding everyone that he was signed for his ability to deliver on the biggest occasions. "I knew when he decided to take the penalty... I knew 80% that he would score," Wenger said.

The title-winning pantomime villain had not fluffed his lines.

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