• Wed
  • Nov 26, 2014
  • Updated: 12:52pm
Column
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 4:12am

King's crown fits Van Persie nicely

Hailed by Alex Ferguson as the complete footballer, Dutchman already has better strike rate than legendary Cantona

BIO

Peter Simpson is a China-UK based journalist and the SCMP’s former Beijing 2008 Olympics news editor. He has covered major international news and sporting events, most recently the London 2012 Olympics and Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine. Peter is a Premier League season ticket holder at newly promoted Southampton FC.
 

In the heart-warming 2009 film about football, Looking For Eric, the hapless, down-at-heel Manchester United supporter asks his idol Eric Cantona what his sweetest moment was playing for the Red Devils.

He reels off a series of guesses, naming nearly all the breathtaking goals scored by the maverick Frenchman. "It must be a goal, Eric!" insists the football-fanatic postman, who, with his life descending into crisis, demands answers from his ghostly alter ego.

Cantona shakes his head and eventually answers. "It was a pass," he reveals, and footage of his outside-of-the-foot chip to Denis Irwin - who then scores against Tottenham during a 1993 clash - reminds us of his prodigious talent.

King Eric has once more been on the lips of many this week after it was declared that Man Utd have finally found a player to match him - Robin van Persie aka RVP.

The comparison began after United boss Alex Ferguson agreed with his rival in the other half of Manchester, Roberto Mancini, who said the free-scoring Dutchman could be the difference in this season's EPL title race.

After watching the "magnificent" RVP take his league tally to 16 goals in the 4-0 New Year's Day demolition of Wigan and so keep intact the seven-point lead, Ferguson said: "We knew we were getting a top player who would make a difference to the team. That's why we went for him. Robin's a completely rounded footballer."

To rub Northern grit into North London wounds, he added: "Robin played for seven years at Arsenal and came to us at the peak of his career."

His comments gave the cue for a chorus of voices to hail RVP as the reincarnation of Cantona. This month also marks the 20th anniversary of Cantona's arrival at Old Trafford from Leeds United, so you can understand the hysterical belief among some Man Utd fans that the second coming now walks among them.

True, the 29-year-old Dutchman is making a similar early impression in a United shirt and has the stats to prove it. Since arriving from the Emirates in a £22million (HK$276 million) transfer last August, RVP has scored nine goals in 12 appearances - a strike-rate of 0.75 goals a game.

Cantona, whose arrival from Leeds transformed Ferguson's 1992 squad, scored only five times in his first 12 games. Ruud van Nistelrooy and Dwight Yorke also made similar impacts at the start of their United careers, each scoring eight goals in 12 games. But all fall short of Van the Man's strike rate.

Like Cantona, RVP has a courteous presence that commands instant respect and admiration. He has, according to Ryan Giggs and other senior players, given the club a boost. And like the legendary No 7, RVP has the grace to acknowledge his greatness exists only because of the team around him.

"We're like the supporters. We look forward to playing with and seeing quality players come into the team," Giggs said.

Ferguson let it be known that he chased RVP in the belief the striker would prove to be the same "catalyst" for his current team as his midfield general Cantona was 21 years ago. RVP certainly looks like he has been cast by the same mould.

Soon after Cantona's arrival, the coaching staff changed the style of play which ultimately made the side the successful - and the Frenchman was credited with bringing the best out of Mark Hughes, a player not known for developing on-pitch partnerships.

RVP's arrival has also seen Man U's attacking dynamics change up a gear. Rooney has been redeployed as a deep-lying forward and appears like a man with the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders.

He now has the licence to be more creative thanks to the attacking edge sharpened by RVP's presence, and his extrasensory perception with the Dutchman has added a new dimension to his and United's game.

It is easy to get carried away with the comparison hype. Arsenal's Theo Walcott is being hailed as the new Thierry Henry. At 23, Walcott has started banging the goals in thanks to his redeployment in attack - the same age that Henry was starting to weave his magic at Highbury. But it's not quite as convincing as the Cantona-RVP similitude.

Ferguson, for all his praise, is not yet ready to declare "The king is dead. Long live the king". He reminded the misty-eyed faithful of the other greats have made Man U over the past two decades.

"The 1999 squad, with the four strikers we had, got to the end of the 1999-2000 season needing to score three to get to 100. That was a phenomenal strike force - Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer - every time they went onto the pitch, it looked like we would score," he recalled.

"At the moment, with the present squad we have, I can see similarities in terms of threat. I am not saying we are going to get to 100 goals, but we have a good goal threat," he added.

Ferguson turned 71 this week and he celebrated by revelling in the RVP-inspired table-topping position - and by revealing he has no plans to retire in the immediate future.

"There is no one on the agenda but someone will have to replace me. I am hoping to stay on for a bit of time, anyway," he said.

Any film made about Ferguson - if and when he does retire - will of course have to ask of him who was his best signing. Now that is a question.

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