O'Neill impressed by Van Persie's growing influence


Manchester United 3 Sunderland 1As the manager who harnessed Henrik Larsson in his pomp when in charge of Celtic, Martin O’Neill knows the potency of a talisman. Sunderland’s manager looks at Manchester United’s Robin van Persie and sees a force with an impact similar to that of Lionel Messi for Barcelona.

The Dutchman is flying in his debut United season, the go-to man who turns matches for Alex Ferguson. “That’s the nature of the game and you can boil it down to an awful lot of things,” O’Neill said.

“Would, for instance, Barcelona have the same effect if Lionel Messi didn’t play? The number of goals he has scored is incredible [86 in 2012]. They are a very talented team, but without him, you don’t know because Messi is their talisman.”

O’Neill, Celtic’s most successful manager since Jock Stein, took the Glasgow club to the 2003 Uefa Cup final, where Larsson scored twice in the 3-2 defeat by Jose Mourinho’s Porto.

Asked if the Van Persie influence on United, whose opener against Sunderland was a 12th Premier League goal since joining, is the same as Larsson’s was for Celtic, O’Neill said: “Absolutely. United have paid close on £30 million for a player who had just one year left on his contract, so that might tell you how valuable they perceive him. But it’s not just the perception, the reality is that he has been fantastic.”

Van Persie followed his goal by creating United’s third and Wayne Rooney’s fifth in his last three league outings. This came on 59 minutes – Ashley Young overhit a pass to the 29-year-old but as Carlos Cuellar and Titus Bramble advanced in a pincer movement, they were left flailing as a fleet-footed Van Persie zipped forward, then fed Rooney, who slid home easily.

O’Neill said: “Honestly, he [Van Persie] can get goals out of very little. It looks like nothing is happening, you have players there in the area, but all of a sudden, he has opened up a gap. Just look at the third goal. We would say we didn’t defend brilliantly, but he would say it was great play, fantastic play, and you always felt that United would give themselves a big edge by getting Van Persie.

Van Persie has scored 15 times in all competitions for his new club and his partnership with Rooney is blossoming. O’Neill added: “The two of them are linking up and keeping some excellent players out of the team. No matter how many times you think you have covered the space, those players can do something.”

O’Neill believes Van Persie could be the X-factor in this season’s title race. “We are making judgments before Christmas, but if he stays fit that will make a massive difference to United’s challenge,” he said.

Rooney continues to revel in a deeper role, running this contest until Sunderland’s late resurgence, alongside Michael Carrick before he was withdrawn at half-time due to a hamstring problem.

Rooney’s display included a crossfield ball that hummed at a ferocious velocity while rising no higher than six feet.

Tom Cleverley’s second for United arrived after 19 minutes, while Fraizer Campbell, on as a second-half substitute, profited from the home side’s lax defending in the closing half-hour to head a consolation. For United, Nemanja Vidic made a heartening 67th-minute appearance as a replacement following his knee injury, while Rafael da Silva was not in the squad due to a hamstring issue.

Guardian Service

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