at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
London - Perhaps Robin van Persie has been listening to the little boy in his mind again because this performance leapt from the pages of a comic book.
Deep in “Fergie Time” at the end of the manager’s 1 000th league game in charge of Manchester United, up he popped - somehow free amid a crowd of red Southampton shirts - to glance Nani’s corner into the net.
With it, he completed a hat-trick, made amends for the penalty he fluffed with an attempted dink over goalkeeper Kelvin Davis and probably escaped his first blast of the manager’s hairdryer. Van Persie also reached 100 Premier League goals - at a rate better than one every two games - on a ground where he was sent off on his last visit.
The striker held his hands up at the final whistle after failing with a repeat of the chipped effort he executed successfully at Wolves last season.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said. “I wanted to hit it hard like I always do but at the last second I just changed somehow. Maybe it was my brother out there or something, I don’t know. But it wasn’t good enough and I’m quite disappointed about it. I ask a certain standard from my game. When you are 2-1 down, you can’t take a penalty like that.”
But Van Persie banished doubts that his sublime form in front of goal may somehow vanish in the move from the Emirates Stadium to Old Trafford. More importantly (so they always say) he rescued three points for his team from a game they were losing with 87 minutes on the clock, helped them avoid a fourth defeat in five away games and kept them in touch with early pacesetters Chelsea.
Victory enables Sir Alex Ferguson to enjoy the international break with a clear head to conjure with the best way to utilise the gifts of Van Persie, particularly when Wayne Rooney returns to fitness.
For Southampton, the script was painfully familiar after their demise at Manchester City on the opening day of the campaign when they led before being overpowered by the champions. Nigel Adkins bubbled with pride, but there are no points to go with the satisfaction he can take from three games back in the top flight. Next up is Arsenal away and Saints must seek a way to add substance to their style.
United were commanding at times yet vulnerable at others and struggled to contain the threat of Rickie Lambert, even with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in tandem for the first time this year. Lambert opened the scoring in the 16th minute, drifting deep to maximise his height advantage and climb easily above Rafael to meet Jason Puncheon’s cross.
Van Persie replied with what has become a trademark goal, taking the ball with perfect control on his chest and hitting a sweet volley with his left foot before Morgan Schneiderlin restored Southampton’s lead after a defensive lapse.
But just as the crowd at St Mary’s began to sense a famous win, Ferguson made his own vital contribution to the twisting plot, sending on Paul Scholes and Nani.
Scholes seized control, settling into his zone just in front of the centre halves. He sprayed some eye-catching passes across the pitch, but equally important was the way he generated a quicker rhythm for United which had been missing until this point.
Van Persie made reference to Scholes’ influence after the 37-year-old midfielder was brought on just after the hour.
“I have to say ‘Thank you’ to Paul Scholes,” he said. “When he came on, everything was ticking. Every single pass he hit was the right one. He hit a couple of unbelievable 30-40 yard passes. With him, you are always on your toes because anything can happen. He was my man of the match.”
There was still time for Van Persie to fluff his penalty as Southampton clung on desperately. But the Dutchman and United were not to be denied. In the closing minutes Van Persie struck twice to secure victory. He has four goals in two starts since his £24m transfer - having taken advice from the “little boy inside me” - and he stood before United fans after the final whistle with the match-ball at his feet as they sang his name.