Van Persie underlines his worth to Arsenal
ARSENAL 2 SUNDERLAND 1
You could tell by the way that he was afforded his own rapturous farewell that the Emirates home support knows Robin van Persie is the difference between Arsenal maintaining their place among the elite of English football, and the prospect of slipping away into mediocrity.
There was a time when Van Persie was just one of a number of marquee names at Arsenal but now, with the possible exception of the injured Jack Wilshere, and arguably the goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, the captain is the only alpha left.
Yesterday he carried Arsenal over the line through sheer force of will and that unique talent which makes him, at his best, such an arresting player to watch.
This is Arsenal in 2011, a team that has come to rely heavily on the talents of one man who has only two years left on his contract and, increasingly, holds the key to the last chapter of Arsene Wenger's time at the club.
In his programme notes, Van Persie addressed the issue of his future, claiming that he was "committed to Arsenal" and despite the stories about him selling his house he had already found somewhere new. "And yes," he wrote, "it is in London!"
But on the prospect of him extending his contract beyond the summer of 2013, there was no mention.
Along with Thomas Vermaelen, Theo Walcott and Andrey Arshavin, Arsenal now find themselves in another waiting game with players who have less than two years left on their contracts and appear to be biding their time to see which direction the club is taking.
It was Wenger who later offered a more insightful perspective on the Van Persie situation when he accepted there was no guarantee that the player would stay.
"For me, commitment is as long as you are at the club, you give 100pc until the last day of your contract. That is what I call commitment. You have players with 10-year contracts who are not committed. He (Van Persie) knows we are ready to talk about it. The most important thing is how much you are committed for the cause as long as you are at the club."
Would it not, Wenger was asked, be ideal if Van Persie was to sign? "Unfortunately the ideal situation does not exist often," Wenger said. "The ideal situation is that he extends his length of contract, but if he does not we have to respect that. What is important is that he plays like he plays."
It was not exactly the assurance that Van Persie would be staying. In fact, it was far from it.
As for the player himself, for all his protestations of commitment in the programme and in his post-match Sky Sports interview, all that was really clarified was that he has a new house and it is in London. As for the rest, we will just have to wait.
For Arsenal, warming up for Marseille away with Sunderland at home should have been like preparing for a trek through the Andes with a Sunday stroll across Hampstead Heath. Yet for long periods Steve Bruce's side contemplated an unlikely point.
They swiftly sensed the brittle confidence of Arsenal, who at times sat so deep that Pat Rice leapt from his seat, frantically urging the defence upfield.
The nerves are hardly helped by the tension knotting stomachs on the terraces. A few thousand fans had simply not turned up anyway. Some left early, even when their team needed support.
Bruce could feel the nerves. "Aye; you don't have to be a rocket scientist do you?'' he reflected, "and we know what it's like to play in a grumbling stadium, believe me. You've got to take advantage of that as the away team."
They might have done but for Van Persie. The fans were still filing into the ground when he struck after 29 seconds, scoring Arsenal's fastest goal in their Premier League history, and the quickest in the league since Geovanni pounced for Manchester City against Bruce's Wigan Athletic four years ago.
The goal was a gem, Arsenal accelerating upfield, the ball flowing from Tomas Rosicky to Gervinho to Van Persie. Sunderland's defence was too slow to react, John O'Shea and Michael Turner particularly culpable. Van Persie was too sharp, driving the ball with his right foot past Simon Mignolet.
The stage was surely set for Arsenal's technical talents to parade their gifts. Theo Walcott and Mikel Arteta in particular failed to seize the opportunity and again they missed the bullish playmaker Jack Wilshere.
Van Persie almost made it two, turning and chipping Mignolet, echoing Glenn Hoddle against Watford in 1983 until the ball encountered a post and fell to safety.
The Dutchman was virtually unplayable, bamboozling Sunderland's defence, shooting wide and then elegantly wrong-footing Wes Brown.
That early goal had seemed to shred Bruce's cautious 4-5-1 game plan.
Yet his lone front runner, Stephane Sessegnon, was a threat, for all Wenger's slightly disparaging comments that the visitors played "four defenders and six midfielders".
Sunderland slowly grew in ambition. Arteta then fouled Cattermole, presenting Sebastian Larsson with a free-kick 25 yards out. Szczesny threw himself to his right but the Swede's free-kick was too accurate, moving too rapidly.
It was a "wonder-goal" in the understandable view of Bruce, a classic that would have elicited a wild celebration from most scorers.
Larsson revealed his class as a person as well as a player, showing respect to his former fans by heading back to the halfway line, betraying little emotion.
Bizarrely, there seemed a bigger smile on the face of Rosicky, who wandered out of the box as the ball flew in, seemingly believing it was never destined to find the target. He did the same when Wayne Rooney scored at Old Trafford. Curious.
Arsenal were now shadows of their earlier selves. Sunderland saw this, flooding forward. Larsson exploited Carl Jenkinson's hesitancy in possession and sent Sessegnon darting down the inside-left channel.
His cross to Cattermole was perfection but Szczesny flung himself across to save.
Bruce had thrown his hands towards the heavens in incipient celebration before bringing them down in frustration. "It's a great save, let's be fair, but I'd be disappointed not to stick that in from three yards, and I'm sure Lee will be when he sees it tonight," said Bruce ruefully.
Arsenal awoke. Rosicky embarked on a few positive dribbles. Arshavin arrived and began running at Sunderland, including one weaving odyssey in the 73rd minute that took him past Cattermole, O'Shea and Turner before he toe-poked the ball wide.
For a long time, Arsenal's free-kicks were poor with Arteta, Walcott and Andre Santos, who had replaced a hobbling Kieran Gibbs, all wasting chances.
But then Brown took another naive nibble at Van Persie, gifting the Dutchman an inviting free-kick position, nicely positioned for his left foot.
Van Persie had swept a fine free-kick past Craig Gordon, the then Sunderland keeper, here in 2007 but yesterday's piece of dead-ball prowess was even more breath-taking. He bent the ball over the wall, curling past Mignolet.
"For me, the one criticism, is we gave too many free-kicks (away) on the edge of the box,'' lamented Bruce. "When you've got somebody of Van Persie's quality you can't keep asking them to hit it over the bar like they did, and unfortunately in the end we got caught."
Even then, the nerves jangled. When Peter Walton signalled five minutes' injury-time, Wenger waved his arms like a Milan traffic cop fighting a losing battle at a particularly busy intersection. To his eventual relief, Arsenal held on.
When the adrenaline wears off, even Van Persie will have to concede that yesterday was not a performance in which Arsenal can claim to have turned the corner, even though they rose five places to 10th with the win. (© Independent News Service)