'Scowling' Van Persie lets anger boil over
Tunnel bust-up with Shawcross sums up frustrating season for Dutch striker
Manchester Utd 3 Stoke City 2
Robin van Persie was involved in a post-match tunnel confrontation with Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross after instigating Manchester United's dramatic fightback against Mark Hughes' team at Old Trafford.
Van Persie had spent much of the game clashing with Shawcross, with the spat boiling over at half-time when the centre-half was booked in the dressing room by referee Lee Mason for shoving Van Persie as he ran past the Dutch forward in the tunnel at the end of the first half.
Moments earlier, after Marko Arnautovic's free-kick had put Stoke 2-1 ahead following Van Persie's 43rd-minute equaliser, the Dutch striker appeared to be grabbed by the throat by an opponent as Stoke defended a stoppage-time corner. Shawcross and Van Persie clashed again when post-match interviews were being conducted in the players' tunnel, with Shawcross shouting back at Van Persie after the United forward appeared to mutter in the defender's direction as he walked past.
Witnesses claim that Van Persie continued to walk away as Shawcross repeatedly called on the striker to explain what he had said.
Stoke manager Hughes confirmed that Shawcross had been booked by Mason following the half-time incident with Van Persie. "Yes, he pushed him I think," Hughes said. "I've no idea, because I didn't see the incident but the referee wanted to book Ryan. I've never known anyone get booked in the dressing room before."
While United's victory, secured by late headers from Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, banished an immediate air of crisis away from David Moyes's team, Van Persie's turbulent afternoon did little to dispel the sense that the 30-year-old has yet to find his form this season.
His goal, which cancelled out Peter Crouch's third-minute opener, was his eighth in 11 appearances this season – the same as his total this time last season – yet the fluency of 12 months ago is not there and neither is the smile.
Van Persie is beginning to scowl and become embroiled in needless on-field tussles with defenders. The former Arsenal forward suggested that his issues stem from his fitness concerns and conceded recent weeks have been "quite tough for me" due to a persistent toe injury.
"To be fair, I've felt better," he added. "The last couple of weeks, it has been quite tough. I've been sore in a couple of places and I want to play through that, but you know how it goes when you're sore. Nothing too serious, but I hope to get out of that cycle sooner than later."
In Van Persie and Rooney, United arguably possess the most dangerous strike pairing in the Premier League, yet service has been lacking and Stoke, who were well-organised, disciplined and over-physical at times, were able to frustrate United for lengthy periods. It required the second-half introductions of Adnan Januzaj, Antonio Valencia and Hernandez to sharpen United's edge and credit is due to Moyes for going for broke when he has been subjected to accusations of being too cautious.
Moyes threw caution to the wind and he was rewarded. Januzaj added flair and penetration, Valencia dealt with Stoke's physical threat far better than the uninspiring Nani, and Hernandez did what Hernandez does – he scored the crucial late winner with a far-post header from Patrice Evra's cross.
"Don't forget Chicharito because he's a great player," Van Persie said.
"He's a real role model to all footballers. He works so hard, I'm a really big fan of his. He came in and scored the winner, so it proves we need all of the strikers."
Having overturned a 2-1 deficit to win the game, Moyes and assistant Phil Neville celebrated on the pitch in scenes reminiscent of Brian Kidd's reaction to two late Steve Bruce goals against Sheffield Wednesday 20 years ago. Hughes, who played for United that day, sensed similar relief following Hernandez's goal, but he insists while Moyes's team are still seeking an identity, things are not as bad at Old Trafford as some may suggest.
"Oh, it's been worse," Hughes said. "I remember when we went to Millwall (in February 1990) and we were 1-0 down. If we had been beaten, we would have been in the bottom three. United are still in the top half and they will still win a lot of games this season, but teams will come here and have a go, which hasn't been the case before. There's an onus on United players to do the hard yards and I just felt that, while their attacking play will always be good, going the other way it is not quite where it needs to be at the moment." (© Daily Telegraph, London)