Clouds gather over Van Persie as troubled striker revisits scene of his finest hour
It is just two years since Robin van Persie strolled through a guard of honour at the Emirates Stadium, begrudgingly applauded on to the pitch by his former Arsenal team-mates having inspired Manchester United to the Premier League title.
The Dutch forward had hit the jackpot. After a decade of trying to become a champion at Arsenal, he ended his wait at the first attempt at Old Trafford and eclipsed United's established stars to become the most important player in Alex Ferguson's squad.
Van Persie was 'The Man' to the extent that Wayne Rooney was searching for a way out of the club after being shunted out to right midfield to accommodate the £22m forward.
Yet tomorrow, when the 31-year-old faces his former club again, there will be no guard of honour and, possibly, not even a place in the team, even with Rooney absent.
From the moment Ferguson retired less than a month after that Arsenal game, Van Persie has developed into an enigma who cannot even convince an apparent kindred spirit in Louis van Gaal of his worth to United.
The two forged a strong relationship when Van Persie was captain of the Dutch team under Van Gaal and the general sense was that they would reinforce that axis when Van Gaal was appointed United manager.
The surprise of this season is that it has not happened, with Van Gaal selecting Rooney as his captain and making it clear that the England forward was the one player who would be given 'special privileges'.
Public praise of Van Persie from Van Gaal has been conspicuous by its rarity.
There have been rumours in The Netherlands of a disagreement at the World Cup, which coincided with the emergence of Arjen Robben as the heartbeat of the dressing room, yet those close to Van Persie have rejected any notion of a rift.
Van Persie has told friends he is happy in Manchester, where his children are settled in school and has no desire to move.
However, with a year remaining on his contract, he is facing a new reality at United and may see out that contract only by default, with Radamel Falcao failing to earn a permanent move and the cost of keeping Van Persie likely to prove more prudent than replacing him.
United are aware of Fenerbahce's determination to lure Van Persie away - they would pay huge wages and a sizeable fee. But the likelihood is that United will stick with Van Persie for one more year in the hope that he can rediscover the form of his first season.
His career high came in 2011-12, his final year at Arsenal, when 30 goals in 38 appearances prompted his move.
Van Persie averaged a Premier League goal every 111.13 minutes in 2011-'12, hit the target 82 times and produced nine assists within 92 chances created. He also delivered 204 crosses and corners.
The contrast to this season is stark - he has made 26 league appearances, scoring 10 goals. But he now scores once every 208.5 minutes and has created just 27 chances - only two of which have been led to goals - and delivered a mere 17 crosses and corners.
Van Persie has made 541 passes this season; 1,032 in 2011-'12. He touched the ball 1,757 times in 2011-'12; just 858 times this season.
While David Moyes is blamed for sparking Van Persie's decline, the striker's goal output had already begun to dry up in the final months of Ferguson's reign, with only eight being scored between the end of January and mid-May.
Van Gaal has been unable to inspire a resurgence, which is why Edinson Cavani, Danny Ings, Harry Kane, Christian Benteke and Robert Lewandowski have all been touted as summer targets.
Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger has warned his Arsenal players that their summer holiday could be shortened by a week if they are leapfrogged by Manchester United and finish outside the Premier League's top three.
Arsenal have grown used to playing a two-legged Champions League qualifier in August as England's fourth-best team for much of the past decade and, although they have always progressed to the group phase, the knock-on consequences are wide-ranging.
"They have to come back a bit earlier, a few days perhaps, sometimes a week," said Wenger.
"It means less holidays for the international players. Every day in practice you have to focus. You are already thinking about that day."
Wenger remains certain that his worst defeat as Arsenal manager - an 8-2 humiliation at Old Trafford against Manchester United in 2011 - was hugely influenced by a gruelling Champions League qualifier at Udinese four days earlier.
"It was the most stressful qualifier," said Wenger. "It was very hot that night. We also had to buy quickly that year because we had so many long-term injuries and, when you have to buy quickly, you can go wrong.
"When you qualify at Udinese and a few days later have to go to Old Trafford, you have more chance to lose the game than to win it. Sometimes you pay the price in the Premier League."
United could climb above Arsenal into third should they win tomorrow's match although Wenger's team do still have the safety blanket of home fixtures against Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion in the final week of the season.
"We can mathematically put a distance between them and us in the top four and basically secure the top three," said Wenger.
"Also, we can make a symbolic statement because we won over there in the FA Cup. To reproduce that would be psychologically important. To do it again would convince us more that we have the strength and can be even stronger next season."
Wenger has already said that Alexis Sanchez will miss the start of next season - and that would probably include any Champions League qualifier - should Chile reach the latter stages of the Copa America and he knows that it could also impact on his player recruitment.
"It's very important for your season preparations to not have that kind of stress of a Champions League qualifier over your head from the first day you start again," said Wenger.
"It's vital. We know what it means and we know it's always tricky because you can play against teams who are in the middle of their championship when you are in preparation.
"It's difficult (with bringing players in). They think that most of the time you're playing in the Champions League but you're not sure. The only thing we can say is that statistically we have always done it."
United can no longer say that after last season and Wenger knows they will be direct competitors this summer for certain players, including perhaps Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech.
"It looks to me like they are on the market because every player I'm offered I'm told Man United are on the case as well," said Wenger. "It looks like they are very active and you expect them to come back again with some strong buys."
United made one particularly controversial transfer last summer in selling Danny Welbeck to Arsenal but the Arsenal striker is ruled out tomorrow with his knee injury.
Welbeck should return next week but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is facing FA Cup final heartbreak for the second successive year after hurting his hamstring in training. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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