Robin van Persie: He returned, he scored, but the outrage was subdued

He came back, he scored, he did not celebrate.

He even got booked for a tasty challenge on Per Mertesacker. Yet Robin van Persie's heavily trailed Emirates Stadium return was a curious non-event, which somehow chimed with the broader spectacle.

From an Arsenal perspective, this was a game of tremendous importance. Never mind Van Persie and the attendant symbolism of the club's star player from last season pitching up as a Manchester United champion, they were desperate for a victory to take advantage of Tottenham Hotspur's dropped points at Wigan Athletic in the quest for Champions League qualification.

And yet it was flat. Arsenal made a high-octane start but it faded and they seemed content with the draw during a second half of shadow-boxing. They remain on course to achieve their basic target, the one that they have claimed for the past 15 seasons, but there was the sense of stasis, of another session on the treadmill.

It was reinforced by the statistics. At this stage of last season, with Van Persie in the form of his life in their colours, Arsenal had 65 points, 67 goals and were set fair for a top-four finish. They now have 64 points, 66 goals and are in the shake-up for a top-four finish. One reading is that the club have absorbed the blow of Van Persie's departure with a show of strength. Another is that there is a ceiling to their ambition, no matter what.

This used to be the fixture of the Premier League season and the big-screen recap of previous battles before kick-off had stirred the senses, despite them overlooking the really good bits, such as Vieira v Keane in the tunnel or Keown v Van Nistelrooy. These days the rivalry is diluted and for United there was practically nothing on this meeting, save for a few decorative features, chief among them the desire to retain the hope of a record 96-point finish. That has now gone.

Outside the stadium sellers had half-and-half scarves, which were aimed at day-trippers but still seemed ludicrous, given the recent enmity between the clubs. At least there was no mention of United's 20th championship on them. Then there was the guard of honour, which hardly feels like a glorious and heartfelt English football tradition but rather some haphazard schmalz that teams, in this case, Arsenal, get bullied into performing. Each season the champions pick up the trophy after the final game and their opponents generally do some clapping. Can this not suffice?

Obviously it was a giggle that Van Persie got to receive the guard, although not for Arsenal, and his presence surely intensified the focus on the farrago, which was choreographed by staff from the home club. Van Persie was the last out of the tunnel and he kept his eyes, resolutely, straight ahead, before he broke to line up with his United team-mates and applaud the travelling fans. And that was it.

Wenger has described United's success this time out as having been "discreet", which is a nice way of putting it, given the uncharacteristic lack of drama but this game meant everything to Arsenal and they looked as if they wanted it more in the early running. It was ironic that a loose Van Persie pass, which was picked up by Kieran Gibbs, should set Arsenal in motion for the opening goal but United could point the finger of blame more legitimately at the assistant referee, Andy Garratt, who failed to spot that Theo Walcott had been marginally offside.

During United's sluggish start there was a classic moment of Sir Alex Ferguson fury, when he rounded on the fourth official after he felt that Nani had been fouled but slowly United gained a foothold and Van Persie's imprint was prominent. His lovely cross begged Phil Jones to score with a header – the midfielder was off target – while he forced Wojciech Szczesny into a fine reflex save with a header of his own before he won and converted the penalty for his 29th goal of the season.

Bacary Sagna was at fault and, having been booked for the trip on Van Persie, he was fortunate to avoid a second yellow card for a lunge at Patrice Evra. Arsenal came to prize the point, considering it as better than nothing and they seemed mindful that they might end with nothing if they over-committed against a United team set up to punch on the counter.

Van Persie was booed throughout and passions threatened to become inflamed when he jogged towards the away support at full-time, clapping his hands above his head. But he checked and pirouetted, while continuing to applaud, as if to acknowledge the Arsenal fans as well. The outrage was subdued. It was all remarkably low-key.

Powered by article was written by David Hytner at Emirates Stadium, for The Guardian on Sunday 28th April 2013 20.45 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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