Van Persie's treble gets Manchester United off hook
Just when the hairdryer was being revved up by Alex Ferguson in the Manchester United technical area, Robin van Persie showed his brilliance in the Southampton penalty area.
With United trailing 2-1 with three minutes remaining, and Ferguson looking agitated, Van Persie scored twice, completing his hat-trick and breaking Saints' hearts.
Van Persie's treble was United's first since Dimitar Berbatov dismantled Wigan Athletic on St Stephen's Day and took his Premier League tally to 100. With Wayne Rooney injured, United would be utterly lost without Van Persie.
Ferguson will be crossing his fingers and counting the days until his £24m striker returns from international duty with Holland. An injury to Van Persie is the fear that dare not speak its name at United nowadays.
If this carried all the hallmarks of a United rally of old it was also a landmark occasion for a managerial grand-master. The Kasparov of Govan, Ferguson made some hugely important moves in his 1000th league game and 599th victory.
Paul Scholes wielded so much influence when coming on after 61 minutes, bringing such precision to United's passing from midfield that Van Persie eulogised about his contribution, even claiming the little maestro should have been named man of the match and not him.
Suddenly, United had greater balance and urgency. Ferguson's next midfield selection is awaited with interest. His attack too. Javier Hernandez's arrival also set Southampton problems. Yet time appeared to be running out, and the mercury was rising on the United bench, until Van Persie's late rescue act.
Acknowledgement must be made to the reality that Southampton were tiring, seen in the way young James Ward-Prowse struggled late on with cramp. It also needs noting that Nigel Adkins, the 158th manager that Ferguson has faced in league combat, erred with his replacements.
Removing the excellent trio of Jason Puncheon, Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana (for Emmanuel Mayuka, Guly Do Prado and Jay Rodriguez between the 72nd and 80th minutes) simply removed the main men who had been troubling United.
The focus had been on Ferguson before the match, following his ruthless decision to drop David De Gea for a mix-up with Nemanja Vidic that allowed Mladen Petric to score for Fulham last week. It seemed harsh on the Spanish keeper, and hardly conducive to nurturing his confidence, particularly as he had excelled at Goodison Park the week before.
Yet no finger of blame could be pointed at Anders Lindegaard when Southampton took a surprise lead after 15 minutes through Lambert.
Until then, Lambert had been so isolated that he actually chased one of his own flicks. His team-mates gradually moved up to join him.
Nathaniel Clyne ran at Patrice Evra. Lallana, again superb, shot wide.
United's attempts to build in midfield were disrupted by the exceptional pressing work of Lallana, Ward-Prowse, Steven Davis and especially Morgan Schneiderlin, who sounds like a Continental TV detective and certainly kept asking questions of the visitors.
When Tom Cleverley played the ball inside towards Shinji Kagawa, Schneiderlin slid in, nicked possession and drove into United's half, trading passes with Steven Davis. Puncheon took over, hoisting a cross from the right to the far-post where Lambert appeared above Rafael like a storm-cloud. Lambert's header flew unerringly past Lindegaard.
The game will not be remembered as a vintage exhibition of full-back defensive expertise. When Danny Welbeck found Antonio Valencia on the right it was Clyne's turn to play the fall-guy full-back. An otherwise sound signing by Southampton, Clyne lost his footing as Van Persie controlled Valencia's cross, gifting the Dutchman the moment he needed to drive the ball past Kelvin Davis.
If an entertaining first half flashed by in a blur, the second was even more gripping. A wasteful flick from Valencia after 55 minutes allowed Southampton to launch a famous counter, culminating in Lambert crossing and Schneiderlin exploiting a slip by another full-back, this time Evra, to head home.
St Mary's was absolutely rocking with emotion, delight sweeping the Southampton fans while defiance flowed from the United end. Ferguson unleashed Scholes and Nani. Seizing on Kelvin Davis' poor clearance, Nani squared the ball towards Van Persie. Standing with his back to goal, the United centre-forward was brought down by Jos Hooiveld, who had slid in from behind.
The angle and potential for damaging the opponent demanded a penalty. Van Persie placed the ball on the spot, stepped up and at the last moment switched from his usual driven penalty to an attempted Panenka.
During the Euros, the Dutchman had tweeted his admiration of Andrea Pirlo's dinked Penenka-style penalty for Italy against England. Van Persie's version was a poor copy of a good copy and Kelvin Davis saved easily.
The background sound was of Southampton fans cackling and a hairdryer starting. United responded.
Rafael crossed and Rio Ferdinand headed against the post. First to the loose ball was Van Persie, a split-second quicker in mind and body than all around him, and United were level. And that is why he is worth so much money, why Ferguson so coveted his signature. Van Persie turns half-chances into goals, a land of hope into glory.
Victory arrived deep into the four minutes of injury-time. Nani swept across a corner and Van Persie adjusted his body athletically to angle a header past Davis. (© Daily Telegraph, London)