Dutch master turns his fire on Gunners
ARSENAL 1 MANCHESTER UTD 1
On arriving at his old stamping ground, Robin van Persie headed towards the home dressing-room before switching with a smile across the corridor to the away quarters. He certainly knows the way to goal here.
Last season, Van Persie scored 22 times at the Emirates in becoming Footballer of the Year, his prolific nature persuading Manchester United to recruit him to help reclaim the title. He had one of his less effective games, earning a caution for a clumsy challenge that toppled Per Mertesacker like a Giant Redwood, but he took his penalty with a ruthlessness that his old club so lack.
Indeed, Arsenal gave the kind of performance that sadly will have reminded Van Persie why he could not fulfil his ambitions at the club.
They started like a train with a goal from Theo Walcott in the first two minutes while United began the game at half-pace. But, then, when it was required of Arsenal in the second half to step up the tempo and overwhelm opponenst who had absolutely nothing riding on the match, they simply did not have the game to do so.
Any comparison between Lukas Podolski, playing as centre-forward in the absence of the suspended Olivier Giroud, to Van Persie just seems unnecessarily cruel. The Germany international is not a top-level Premier League centre-forward, not by any stretch of the imaginatio.
What must be such a worry for Arsenal supporters as they approach the last three games of the season was the inability of their players to go up a few gears yesterday when they really needed three points.
Even with Jack Wilshere on for the last 28 minutes they could not raise the tempo higher than a United team that is now simply fulfilling fixtures.
Van Persie's equaliser helped the new champions shake off the most uninterested of starts.
There seemed almost an irritation that their post-title reverie was being interrupted. They slowly stirred, initially fractiously like teenagers annoyed at being awoken from a late-morning slumber.
Some poor challenges and ensuing bookings broke up the game. But Van Persie's goal brought a deserved draw, although it ended United's hopes of breaking the Premier League points record of 95 set by Chelsea in 2004-05.
Arsene Wenger's pleas for the Arsenal fans to show some "respect" towards their former captain was ignored by many at the start but the venom ebbed.
Van Persie was booed in the warm-up, and subjected to a couple of unpleasant chants. His appearance at the back of the champions' line for the guard of honour, also including Phil Dowd and the officials, was greeted with brief derision but it was hardly 'Welcome to Hell'.
The situation was helped later by Van Persie responding to his goal with only the most muted of celebrations.
A banner hung in the Emirates declaring that 'You Can't Buy Class; Arsenal Forever'.
United certainly know they have bought footballing class in Van Persie, whose £24m move has brought 25 Premier League goals and the title.
Van Persie was ambitious, realising that Arsenal were unlikely to fight for the major prizes, so he headed to Old Trafford, and his instincts were correct.
He is being paid handsomely, probably twice what Arsenal could have run to, but, most importantly for him, he's got a medal.
Traitor? Well, professionals move around, following the trail of silverware and gold. Van Persie's decision should be used to prompt a more robust transfer strategy in the summer, not simply in fees but in wages. Arsenal continue to overpay average players when they could reward stars more.
The draw leaves Arsenal fourth, a point behind Chelsea and two ahead of Tottenham, but they have played a game more.
The 'Race For Third' was not quite what Sky's marketing types had in mind but it is still a chase of real significance. Arsenal will hope to win their remaining games, against QPR, Wigan Athletic and Newcastle United.
They started this game with such pace, inter-passing brio and belief that for half an hour they looked destined for all the points.
Scarcely two minutes had elapsed when Van Persie gave possession away near the centre-circle and Arsenal countered, the ball being moved via Podolski and Rosicky to Walcott, whose offside position was overlooked by the assistant referee, Andy Garratt.
Patrice Evra was caught out by Garratt's mistake and the speed of Walcott's response. The England winger raced into the area, and calmly shot past De Gea.
United's 'keeper then pushed away Cazorla's swerving shot, while Walcott wafted a free-kick wide.
United finally got out of first gear. Phil Jones was the key, breaking from his central-midfield station, exchanging passes with Wayne Rooney and Van Persie but heading wide.
The game became scrappy, not in the mayhem-in-the-making of yesteryear but still niggly.
United seemed to have targeted Bacary Sagna as a weak point.
Nani crossed the ball towards Van Persie, whose header was kept out by the star-jumping Wojciech Szczesny.
Still only in second gear, United still drew level. Sagna presented the ball to Van Persie and, attempting to retrieve the situation, compounded his error by challenging the Duchman from behind, bringing him down in the box.
There was an inevitability of Van Persie propelling the penalty effortlessly past Szczesny.
Sagna was enduring one of those awkward afternoons.
Early in the second half, United resumed their attacks down the left. After good work by Rooney in the centre, Nani and Evra combined on the left, culminating in a downward header from Rooney that failed to trouble Szczesny.
Sagna, who was cautioned for the challenge on Van Persie, could easily have gone for a second yellow for a foul on Evra. Arsenal had their chances, Cazorla putting a free-kick wide and then denied by De Gea.
Arsenal need a finisher. The one they had was in a different dressing-room. (© Daily Telegraph, London)