Europa League 2016-17: Robin van Persie returns to his old hunting ground
It will be a nostalgic evening on Thursday for Dutch striker Robin van Persie as he returns to his former club Manchester United for the first time since his exit in 2015 with his current team Fenerbahce set to face the Red Devils in the UEFA Europa League Group A fixture.
It will be a special occasion for the player and the fans as they get ready to welcome their 2012/13 English Premier League title-winning hero 14 months after his forced exit to the Turkish side.
RVP’s great start at Manchester United
On losing the 2011/12 Premier League to cross-town rivals to Manchester City, on goal difference, Sir Alex Ferguson suffered one of the biggest upsets in his decorated career. "Of all the setbacks I endured, nothing compared to losing the league to City," he later wrote in his autobiography. The Scot decided he needed someone prolific in front of goal if he was to reclaim the title from the blue side of Manchester and in came Robin van Persie.
Signed from Arsenal for a fee of £24 million, Van Persie was coming off of a stellar season with the Gunners finishing the 2011/12 season as the Premier League’s top scorer. But after 8 years with the North London outfit, where the only piece of silverware he laid hands on was an FA Cup trophy in 2005, he realised it was time to move on if he was to win the Premier League trophy he coveted so much.
With offers from both the Manchester clubs, he decided to join hands with Sir Alex and United. "Manchester United breathes football. If you look at all the players from Manchester United, the stadium, the manager - my choice was made very soon in my mind," said the Dutchman, elated on making the move.
And it did not take long for him to show why clubs across Europe had lined up for his signature as he scored a fantastic half volley on his Old Trafford debut against Fulham.
It did not take long for him to establish himself as a fan favourite, with a hat-trick against Southampton in just his second start. Scoring on his first appearance against former club Arsenal, he restrained his celebrations, showing his class in front of fans that branded him a ‘traitor.’ The injury-time free-kick against rivals City at the Etihad, that clinched three points for United will be long etched in the memories of the fans.
But his best goal in Manchester United colours would come against a struggling Aston Villa side at Old Trafford. A victory in the game would seal the return of the Premier League trophy to the red half of Manchester. And the Dutchman rose to the occasion with a sublime hat-trick as United ran clear 3-0 winners and the title was secured.
His second goal in the game, a majestic volley from just outside the Villa penalty box, after Wayne Rooney picked his run brilliantly from midfield, will go down as RVP’s best strike for the Red Devils.
"It was the goal of the century for me," Ferguson said after the game. "It was marvellous - the technique, with his head down, over the ball and just perfect timing. It was a magnificent strike," said an overjoyed Sir Alex.
"I had to wait so long for my first title. It is a great feeling," Van Persie said after the game. “If you look at the day, the occasion and the importance of the goal it was my best one,” he went on to add later.
That strike was named the best goal of the Premier League era at the Legends of Football charity event earlier this month.
It was a terrific season for both Van Persie and Manchester United as the Premier League trophy was back at Old Trafford and he was the focal point of the title victory. He ended the season with 26 goals in the Premier League, top scoring once again. He was United’s wrecker-in-chief, as he single-handedly carried United to their 20th English League title.
Decline in form after change in regime
But things would soon unravel for the star striker as Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement after that season. David Moyes was the chosen successor and under him began Van Persie’s decline. Former teammate Rio Ferdinand, referring to the legendary Scotsman’s retirement, revealed in his autobiography, “The person it hit more than anyone was Robin."
One could see it on the field as well that it was not the Van Persie from the season before. He struggled with his fitness, the goals were not coming, there was a sense of unrest between him and the new manager.
Moyes’ ill-fated reign as the Red Devils’ manager soon came to an end and after a season of gloom, fans hoped for a better season from the team and Robin alike, under new boss Louis Van Gaal. It helped that Van Persie was the Dutch National Team captain under Van Gaal and had shown signs of form in the 2014 FIFA World Cup under the former Bayern Munich manager as Netherlands finished third at football’s premiere event.
But it would turn out to be just a false dawn as his toils continued under Van Gaal. It did not help that the manager kept tinkering with the team formation and the personnel on a constant basis.
It must have been frustrating to watch from the sidelines when the manager picks Angel Di Maria, an out-and-out winger, ahead of you to partner Wayne Rooney as a striker. Van Persie could just muster up 10 goals in 26 appearances, his worst return after joining United.
He soon fell out with the manager and was unceremoniously shown the doors in the summer of 2015 as he joined Turkish side Fenerbahce, bringing curtains to his United career after scoring 58 goals in 105 appearances over three seasons.
A chance for a proper goodbye
Louis Van Gaal’s spell as Manchester United manager will be remembered by fans for various reasons, mostly negative, and the handling of their favourite RVP’s exit will be chief among them. Despite his struggles in the latter parts of his time at Old Trafford, Robin van Persie’s contributions in the 2012/13 season for United deserved a better send-off than what he eventually received.
On the eve of his return to the M16, he said, "It will be a special occasion and a special game for me.” He also added, "I am now playing for Fenerbahce and I want to do well for my team but of course, it will be special to play 'at home’.”
While he has struggled to establish himself as a first-team player with the Super Lig outfit, he will arrive at his former stomping ground with memories of setting the Premier League on fire in his first season at the Theatre of Dreams.
And the fans will be hoping they get a chance to give the striker a fitting farewell. A stirring send-off for the man who led their team to a historic 20th League title.
(Video courtesy: Peradze YouTube channel)
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