United turned defeat into an astonishing victory with two late goals by Robin van Persie completing a remarkable hat-trick by the Dutchman in Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1,000th league game as Reds manager.
A second defeat in three games of the new season looked on the cards but the summer signing from Arsenal made up for missing a second-half penalty in sensational fashion. Van Persie cancelled out Rickie Lambert’s opener with a clinical finish but, after Morgan Schneiderlin netted a second-half header, the star striker wasted a potential lifeline after 69 minutes when his weak penalty was saved by Kelvin Davis.
The Reds pressed from the outset and initially looked a cut above the newly-promoted Saints with the classy van Persie prodding a volley wide after expertly controlling a Michael Carrick pass on his chest. However, Nigel Adkins’ side grew in stature and almost caught the defence out when a well-worked corner led to Adam Lallana dragging a shot wide. Schneiderlin blazed over from long range and the warning signs were not heeded by United.
Schneiderlin won the ball from Shinji Kagawa in midfield and, when it was switched from Steven Davis to Jason Puncheon, his deep cross set the alarm bells ringing. Lambert had pulled onto Rafael at the far post and comfortably outjumped the Brazilian to nod past Anders Lindegaard.
A response was required and Kagawa almost supplied it with a low drive that was blocked by Kelvin Davis before van Persie illustrated his striking prowess. Danny Welbeck fed Antonio Valencia on the right and, once van Persie had chested down the cross as Nathaniel Clyne slipped, there was only ever going to be one outcome. A flash of the famous left foot saw the ball fly into the corner of the net, via a touch off Davis, to register the Dutchman’s second goal in consecutive games.
Undaunted, the Saints went close when Lambert smashed a splendid drive wide and Lallana’s effort had Lindegaard, recalled in favour of David De Gea, scrambling across his goal to watch it creep wide. Van Persie looked in the mood and placed a curler too high after fine approach work by Valencia and Welbeck before scooping a cheeky free-kick off target following a cynical foul by Jose Fonte on Welbeck.
Although gaining a degree of control, there were few efforts to trouble veteran keeper Davis as half-time approached. A patient build-up led to Patrice Evra’s downward header from a Valencia cross working the home No1 but it was a rare sight of goal in the period leading up to the interval.
Kagawa fired inches the wrong side of Davis’ left-hand post after van Persie’s delightful lay-off to a Rafael pass but the Dutchman’s touch was awry for once after Valencia pounced on a slack kick out by the Saints keeper. Van Persie could only miscue his finish and it proved costly as the hosts regained the lead on 55 minutes.
Evra’s slip granted Schneiderlin the freedom of the penalty area to plant a header beyond Lindegaard when Lambert floated the ball into the danger zone. Only Lindegaard denied Puncheon with a near-post save after the winger skipped past Evra so Sir Alex threw on Paul Scholes and Nani for Tom Cleverley and Kagawa.
Scholes’ first involvement was to set up van Persie for an attempt from a difficult angle that forced prompt action by Davis but Rio Ferdinand needed to be alert to cut out a Lambert centre after the hard-working striker sprung the offside trap. United were handed a lifeline when another stray pass by keeper Davis allowed Nani to find van Persie and the Dutch star was clattered from behind by fellow countryman Joos Hooiveld.
Mike Dean awarded what looked a blatant penalty after having a fine view of the incident but van Persie was guilty of over-elaborating from the spot and Davis atoned for his mistake by pulling off a comfortable save. It appeared to be a serious blow to any hopes of overturning the deficit and the Reds seemed stunned for some time afterwards.
Substitute Javier Hernandez wriggled free to force a desperate last-ditch tackle by Clyne before the late drama unfolded – just when hope seemed to be lost with only three minutes left. Rafael’s cross was headed against an upright by Ferdinand but van Persie pounced on the rebound to lash into an unguarded net. In stoppage time, he completed the rescue act with a bullet header from Nani’s inviting corner to spark scenes of jubilation in the away end, jacknifing a wonderful finish over Davis.
It looked like being the most frustrating of afternoons, but instead became a glorious, memorable occasion with van Persie well on his way to becoming an Old Trafford hero.
That is what supporting Manchester United under Sir Alex has been all about and, for all the excitement of the past, few of the 1,000 games will match this one for raising the blood pressure and the sense of euphoria will last all the way until the next league outing against Wigan in 13 days’ time.