Arun Pradeep is a sports journalist who has covered international cricket and tennis events. A keen follower of European football and enthusiastic blogger, he has written extensively on the sport for the New Indian Express. His biggest dream is to see AC Milan play Newcastle United in the Champions League final with both teams sharing the trophy. Against better judgement and despite nebulous prospects, Arun firmly believes a writer's life is the best there is, even if his mom ends up footing the bills, as she often does.
Ashley Young was preparing to take the corner kick when he noticed the man who had just entered the field. He was running towards Young in pouring rain, his lithe legs carrying him briskly across the sodden surface. The man's red jersey already looked damp in patches due to the downpour and specks of gray glistened in his prematurely ageing hair. Young immediately vacated his spot and ran back into the field, leaving the new entrant to take the kick.
Young had had a good game yesterday. His lacerating pace and twinkle-toed stepovers had led to the afternoon's only goal so far, an own goal by West Bromwich Albion that gave Manchester United the lead. But one goal was not enough. United had created enough chances but had failed to kill the game off, thanks largely to an excellent display by the Baggies goalkeeper Ben Foster. West Brom, sensing a point was there to be taken, were hanging by the thread at Old Trafford. United needed something that could breach Foster's rearguard. Something out of this world. Or out of their bench. Like Robin Van Persie.
The Dutchman wasted no time in taking the corner kick, floating a perfectly weighted ball that hung dangerously above the face of the goal, but his teammates failed to convert it. Over the next 25 minutes, Van Persie could have added twice to United's tally, but was foiled on both occasions by the outstanding Foster. Wearing a fluorescent green kit that seemed to attract balls like moths to flames, the former United 'keeper was keeping out the Red Devils single-handedly.
In the 90th minute, Van Persie finally took matters into his own hands, collecting a pass from Antonio Valencia just inside the box before unleashing a left-footed corker that gave a diving Foster no chance of stopping it. United celebrated, the home fans erupted. Foster, meanwhile, lay sprawled on the ground, his fluorescent kit as green as the greens at Old Trafford.
"I reckon here at Manchester United we got our Christmas present early - right at the start of the season in fact, when Robin van Persie arrived at Old Trafford," Sir Alex Ferguson had said days before the match. With each passing day, Ferguson's decision to blow 24m Euros on an injury-prone, 29-year-old player in the summer is being vindicated.
"He changed the game for us," the United manager said after yesterday's victory. "Every time the ball came up to him, he got hold of it. He turned on them. They were having to go back to their box all the time. He has done well."
Twenty years ago this month, Eric Cantona made his debut for Manchester United. Cantona, considered Ferguson's most influential transfer in his time at United, helped the club to four titles in the next five years. Twenty summers later, Ferguson is still at the helm and sees traces of the iconic Frenchman in Van Persie. "I am reluctant to subscribe to the cult of an individual because I firmly believe that the essence of a successful football team depends on team-work, and neither are we a one-man team," said Ferguson days before the match. "But sometimes there really is a situation where you are lucky enough to find the last piece of the jigsaw. We did it when we brought Eric Cantona to Old Trafford where he proved to be the right player at the right club at the right time. He became the catalyst and springboard for our surge to success. As we approach the halfway point of the season, I have no hesitation saying that (Van Persie) has made a vital difference to our chances of making our mark in this season's title race."
An example of the effect Van Persie had on West Brom yesterday might explain how he has helped his new team through sheer presence. Seconds before his goal in the 90th minute which sealed the result, Van Persie noticed a run down the right by Antonio Valencia and ran into an opposition box that had been deserted by its own defenders in search of an equaliser. No less than four West Brom players tracked back furiously to prevent a second goal. Of the four, three covered the Dutchman: one in front of him, one behind him and one parallel to him.
One player tried to take on Valencia, but the Ecuadorian shrugged him off and crossed to Danny Welbeck, who had made a late surge into the box and was left with acres of space to take a shot at goal. He did, and missed. Seconds later, Van Persie had scored.
The Dutchman has scored a fantastic 17 goals from 24 games since his move to United, in addition to seven assists. With each match-turning performance, his legend grows. "I know that I have a face, a look, people aren't used to seeing," Cantona once said. "A presence."
Ferguson knows that presence. He's seen it before. And he's seeing it now.