Robin van Persie’s double lifted Manchester United into third place in the Barclays Premier League with a 2-1 win over Southampton at St Mary’s on Monday night.
The Dutchman’s sixth and seventh goals in five starts against the Saints extended the Reds’ winning run to five successive matches and ensured Graziano Pelle’s first goal since October was nothing more than a consolation as Louis van Gaal’s men leapfrogged the hosts and also West Ham in the table.
United were made to work hard for the win though, and could be thankful for a couple of second-half interventions made by David De Gea to prevent the hosts from increasing their goal tally on an evening when Southampton showed plenty of attacking intent.
Wayne Rooney returned to skipper the travelling Reds, but it was his strike partner who announced himself with greater impact in the early stages. The encounter began calmly and was starved of any threat from either side until van Persie latched onto Jose Fonte’s weak backpass and rolled the ball through the onrushing Fraser Forster’s legs to open the scoring.
Pelle looked for the goal-getting response two minutes later, but the towering frontman was too far ahead of the near post when meeting a corner with a header well wide.
A solid first quarter-hour for United was dampened by an early injury – a strain in Chris Smalling’s lower body – that forced the defender off and also prompted a comeback for substitute Jonny Evans.
The visitors’ mood was worsened in the 31st minute when Saints produced an equaliser after securing a foothold in the game. An initial shot from Dusan Tadic squeezed through Paddy McNair’s legs, allowing Pelle to follow up and drive in off De Gea from the six-yard line.
Shane Long, who provided the cross for Tadic ahead of the hosts’ first goal, was afforded a glimpse of De Gea’s net soon after. McNair looked to flick away Sadio Mane’s prod and inadvertently directed it to Long, who controlled and drove narrowly over from an acute angle.
As the shift in control of the game drifted towards Southampton, van Gaal looked to tweak his system – changing from a 3-4-1-2 formation to employing a flat back-four – with the introduction of midfielder Ander Herrera for defender McNair.
Despite the home side’s increase in confidence, van Persie caused brief concern in first-half added time when turning away from Nathaniel Clyne on the edge of Forster’s area and curling into the side-netting.
While Ronald Koeman’s side continued with the same momentum displayed towards the end of the opening 45 minutes, they lacked the cutting edge to establish a lead. Long was once again the recipient of an inviting opportunity when meeting a Tadic cross at the back post, but he could only aim his header at De Gea’s midriff.
Constantly at the heart of Southampton’s attacking play, Tadic was the architect of another threatening move shortly before the hour mark. The Serbian gently slid the ball through for Pelle, only to see the striker scoop well over the crossbar.
As many teams have been unfortunate to find over the years though, United have a knack of grinding out the upper hand under any circumstances – a quality that was evident with just under 20 minutes remaining.
Created and finished by the Reds’ frontline, Rooney swung a free-kick far for van Persie to meet – relatively unchallenged – and haunt Forster by once again nudging through the goalkeeper’s legs, but this time with the use of the outside of his left boot to volley in.
Pelle looked to double his and the Saints’ tally when played through by Mane, but the Italian’s shot from a fairly tight angle was expertly glanced off target by the palm of De Gea.
For all of Southampton’s movement and activity in United’s half later into the match, van Gaal’s team kept Koeman’s men largely outside the box as the Reds battled on to claim another three points.
There we go to Third!
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