By Jack Gaughan
Robin Van Persie collects the ball, drives on, beautifully beats two men at the byline and looks up for a fleeting moment. Onrushing is Wayne Rooney – Van Persie knows that of course – who collects the Dutchman’s centre to crash in Manchester United’s third goal against a Sunderland side who at that point were epitomised by the hapless Titus Bramble, nutmegged in the build-up.
In truth, as bad as Bramble was, not many defenders in the Premier League, nay, in Europe, could live with the frighteningly quick train of thought and power of United’s front two.
In 2012 – and accounting for Van Persie’s end to last season with Arsenal – the pair have scored 44 and assisted 18 goals in the Premier League. To put that into perspective, Liverpool as a whole have found the net 39 times. The way the lethal duo are playing at the moment means they could hit 50 before the year is out. Swansea, Newcastle and West Brom beware.
Their telepathic brilliance symbolises what the club have been about for years, but Sir Alex Ferguson has not been afforded two players together, in their prime, firing on all cylinders, for some time.
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United have also won every match in which they have started with Rooney and Van Persie. While they are both injury-free, the five-match winning streak is set to continue. The Black Cats manager, Martin O’Neill, was quick to dish out praise following the 3-1 defeat.
“Robin van Persie was a great purchase,” he said. “It means Manchester United are capable of scoring goals because Wayne Rooney is a top quality player as well.
“Whilst their main players stay fit Manchester United are capable of winning the league.”
Their ‘main’ players also include the likes of Nemanja Vidic, who was roared on by the home supporters as he replaced Rio Ferdinand. The Serbian’s return is somewhat of a godsend for Ferguson, with the excellence of his striking options continuing to paper over some fairly dismal defensive cracks. The 25 goals conceded – yesterday’s free header presented to Fraizer Campbell showed the struggles they are currently enduring – is more than both Manchester City and Chelsea.
Vidic had a couple of hairy moments in his 22-minute cameo, but that is to be expected following almost three months out. His organisation, grit and determination are what is needed to plug the gaps in a leaky back four.
The performances of Rooney and Van Persie do, however, give Vidic time to bed in. While United were not bailed out by their hotshots against Sunderland, they have been before now and certainly will be again.
Rooney is talismanic in the way he holds possession, acting as the figurehead of everything that is measured about the team, and allows the wingers and Van Persie to flourish. It is something that has been overlooked to an extent so far this season, but he has grown into the role. It helps, clearly, that he has a man next to him who he trusts to find the net on a regular basis.
A quick scan around the continent suggests that nobody is in better shape in an attacking sense. The major goal-getters -Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Falcao, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and even Lionel Messi - don’t have the assurance of another proven scorer nearby to alleviate the mounting pressure which is placed upon them regularly. That is why, if the going gets tough for United in the Champions League knockout stages and domestically, the chances are one will bail the other out if he is misfiring, as well as his team-mates.
United are still gunning for the title, Champions League and the FA Cup – who is to say they can’t go on and win all three? They have already beaten their main rivals for the title without even beginning to match defensive solidarity and attacking prowess yet.
The return of Vidic and the form of the front men – it all looks very rosy in the Carrington garden.