Robin van Persie more than made amends for a missed penalty by scoring two late goals to complete his hat-trick and earn all three points for an abject United side who came from behind to beat Southampton 3-2 down on the south coast. The Dutchman had missed a penalty with United 2-1 down but, in a dramatic climax to the game, United’s never-say-die attitude and the clinical finishing of van Persie saw them snatch victory from the jaws of defeat; an ending most appropriate for Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1000th league game in charge of the Reds considering the number of times his side have snatched late winners.
Defeat was cruel on a Southampton side who now lie bottom of the table with no points from their opening three games. They deserved at least a point for their impressive performance which was in stark contrast to United’s abject showing. The Reds were thankful to the Dutchman for his late rescue act who, now with four goals in his first two starts for the club, is demonstrating why goal scorers are such a valuable commodity. Yet whilst the focus will inevitably be on van Persie, and understandably so, the dreadful nature of United’s performance mustn’t go unnoticed and exemplified, once again, the deficiencies within the United side; most pertinently the lack of a ball-winning central-midfielder.
Sir Alex Ferguson made three changes to the team that beat Fulham last weekend. The welcome return of Rio Ferdinand to the centre of United’s defence allowed Michael Carrick to push further forward into central-midfield at the expense of Anderson and Danny Welbeck replaced the injured Ashley Young. The manager also opted to drop David de Gea after deeming him culpable for Fulham’s second goal last weekend and brought in Danish international Anders Lindegaard as his replacement; a surprising move considering de Gea appears to be a ‘confidence player’ who performs best when assured of his place in the starting eleven.
United started brightly in the first 10 minutes pinning Southampton back but failed to capitalise on their early dominance and fell behind after just 16 minutes. Shinji Kagawa was dispossessed and Schneiderlin found Steven Davis who worked the ball out wide to Jason Puncheon on the left wing. Puncheon swung an inviting cross over to the back-post where the Saints leading scorer last season, Rickie Lambert, outjumped Rafael to power a header back across goal past the despairing dive of Lindegaard.
The goal came against the overall run of play although Southampton had been beginning to assert some control of their own at that point. United responded within seven minutes though; Valencia, spotting van Persie was free at the back post, lofted a cross to the Dutchman who chested the ball down before drilling a ferocious half-volley past Kelvin Davis in the Southampton net.
A disjointed United went on to dominate possession for the first half without really penetrating the Saints back line; the only real chance of note after van Persie’s equaliser fell to Patrice Evra who forced Davis into a save with a powerful downward header. Sloppy passing seemed to spread throughout the United team like a virulent and contagious disease from Anders Lindegaard, whose distribution was poor all afternoon, to Michael Carrick, normally so assured in possession whilst Carrick’s midfield partner, Tom Cleverley, also wasn’t at his tenacious best. The Reds also seemed to be lacking in ingenuity particularly as the fulcrum of United’s side, Shinji Kagawa, was effectively marshalled by the impressive Morgan Schneiderlin.
After a sloppy first half performance, I was expecting the manager to make some half-time substitutions – perhaps replacing the ineffectual Danny Welbeck – but as per usual, he waited until United went a goal behind before rolling the dice. Van Persie passed up a great opportunity to put United in front shooting wide with his left foot after Valencia found him inside the box and within a minute United found themselves behind for the second time in the match. It was the aforementioned Schneiderlin who, ten minutes into the second half, gave the Saints the lead, capitalising on an unfortunate slip from Evra to emphatically head past Lindegaard and send the Southampton fans into delirium.
United resembled a bruised and battered fighter surviving on the ropes and waiting, desperately, for the bell signalling the end of the round in the 10 minutes after Schneiderlin’s goal. Lindegaard had to save well at his near post from Jason Puncheon who was lively throughout, Evra made a crucial block and Adam Lallana shot tamely at Lindegaard when in a decent shooting position. Having survived that onslaught, Ferguson sought to regain the initiative with two substitutions, bringing on Paul Scholes and Nani for Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa; substitutions that saw United move to a traditional 4-4-2 formation with Nani and Valencia on the wings and Welbeck partnering van Persie up front.
After the substitutions, United gradually worked themselves back into the game with Paul Scholes showing why, even at the grand old age of 37, he remains an invaluable member of the United squad. Scholes, in his inimitable manner, began to knit the United build-up together and also threaded an inch-perfect through-ball to van Persie who forced Davis into a decent save. Yet United, once again, were struggling to unlock the Saints back four and so Ferguson opted to throw on Javier Hernandez, making his first appearance of the new season, for the disappointing Welbeck.
Hernandez’s energy made a difference for United who were awarded a lifeline when referee Mike Dean pointed to the spot with a little under 15 minutes remaining. Nani played the ball into van Persie who was crudely scythed down from behind by his countryman Jos Hooiveld. It was a clear penalty and van Persie picked himself up to take it only to see his Panenka-style attempt saved by Davis. It looked at that point as though United could be in store for their second away defeat in succession but van Persie would have the last laugh in his battle with Davis.
With time ticking away – only 3 minutes of the 90 remained – Rafael floated in a cross which Rio Ferdinand, who had stayed forward after a corner, headed against the post but, no matter, van Persie was on hand to convert the rebound and seemingly earn United a barely deserved point. However, the Dutchman wasn’t done there.
In the second minute of injury time, Nani sent over a corner, which surprisingly beat the first man, and van Persie was there, arching his back to twist and head the ball past Davis to seal his hat-trick and earn all three points for the Reds. His winner sent the United fans, RedMancunian’s @CenterSneak, @Andy_Thomo and @Mdhzk3 among them, into raptures as well as ensuring that the long journey back was a much more palatable one.
Van Persie looks as though he’s on a personal mission to make a mockery out of those who questioned whether United were sensible in spending £24 million on him and, if he continues in this vein of form, he looks a good bet to be the Premier League’s top scorer. Whilst the performance was poor, the three points were gained and United will be looking to produce a vastly improved performance in their next outing at home to Wigan in two weeks time following the much-despised international break.