ROBIN van Persie earned a point for Barclays Premier League champions Manchester United yesterday in a 1-1 draw on his return to Arsenal.
Scorers: Arsenal - Walcott 2; Man Utd - van Persie 44 pen
Referee: P Dowd
The former Gunners captain received the expected hot reception as soon as he stepped out at the Emirates Stadium for a guard of honour, which was impeccably observed by the Arsenal team to mark United’s achievements in marching to a 20th championship.
It was, though, Arsenal – without suspended forward Olivier Giroud – who raced into the lead as Theo Walcott beat the offside trap to fire the hosts ahead inside two minutes. However, despite enduring plenty of jeers from the home support as passions continued to run high in the wake of his controversial £24 million move to Old Trafford last summer, Van Persie kept his cool to equalise from the spot just before half-time after being brought down by Bacary Sagna.
To his credit, there was no wild celebration from the former Arsenal captain, who continued to test the home defence in the second half.
Neither side, though, was able to press on and claim all three points, with a draw seeing Arsenal drop into fourth place, but still two points ahead of Tottenham, albeit having played a match more in the race for Champions League qualification.
A chorus of boos greeted Van Persie as he emerged from the tunnel at the end of the United line. Those jeers, however, were soon replaced by raucous celebration as Walcott swept the hosts ahead.
Van Persie lost possession on the half-way line, and Arsenal countered quickly as the ball was worked forward to Tomas Rosicky, who released Walcott down the right.
The England forward looked suspiciously offside, but needed no second invitation as he raced on into the penalty area before slotting under David De Gea.
Arsenal remained on the offensive, with the United goalkeeper again called into action to beat away Santi Carzola’s curling 20-yard effort.
The Gunners faithful took great delight in barracking their former hero every time Van Persie got on the ball – and revelled in some more Schadenfraude when the United forward drilled a left-foot shot high and wide after being played in to the edge of the penalty area.
United threatened on the break as Phil Jones sprinted the full length of the pitch to arrive at pace in the Arsenal box as Van Persie floated over a superb cross towards the penalty spot – but could only plant his downward header wide.
The Arsenal fans were screaming for a red card on 27 minutes when Van Persie slid into Per Mertesacker for a 50/50 tackle on the nearside, but rightly Phil Dowd produced a yellow. Cazorla released Lukas Podolski down the left channel, with his angled drive beaten away.
United would have levelled on 38 minutes but for a superb reaction save from Wojciech Szczesny. Nani broke quickly down the left and crossed into the six-yard box, where Van Persie sent his point-blank bullet header goalwards. Somehow, though, the Polish goalkeeper spread-eagled himself to take the full force of the ball square in his face.
The equaliser eventually came on 44 minutes after Sagna inexplicably gave the ball away to Van Persie, who sprinted on into the area. The France full-back recovered ground, but then slid in to trip his former team-mate, and Dowd immediately pointed to the spot. After some theatrics from Szczesny, Van Persie kept cool to fire the ball into the right corner – before turning away with no celebration.
Arsenal started the second half with some purpose, as Rosicky’s curled effort flew just wide. United, though, always looked to have another gear, as Van Persie scampered away down the left before cutting a low cross back through the Gunners’ six-yard box.
Rafael then lifted an angled drive over the bar from 20 yards before Rooney’s downward header was gathered by the Arsenal keeper at the second attempt.
Antonio Valencia was the next man in the referee’s busy notebook when he handled just outside the area as Kieran Gibbs knocked down a cross-field pass from Cazorla. The Spaniard took the free-kick himself, but drilled it wide.
Arsenal briefly rallied heading into the final 20 minutes, with Jones blocking a goal-bound effort from Ramsey and defender Laurent Koscielny firing over from the corner.
De Gea turned away a low, 20-yard strike from Carzola, before United substitute Ryan Giggs had a curling effort deflected behind following a quick counter and both sides had to settle for a share of the spoils. Much of the talk before, during and after the match had, of course, centred around Van Persie. Speaking to reporters at full-time, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said he thought the home fans booing the striker was a sign of “disappointed love” for the player who spent eight years at the club.
He also said that Van Persie, who attempted to go into the home dressing room by mistake when he arrived at the ground, was welcomed back into it by his old team-mates afterwards.
“When he was here the fans loved him, so today they showed some disappointed love. I don’t really think he scored – he scored a penalty and that counts but it’s not completely the same,” joked Wenger. “He took his penalty very well and I knew when he decided to take the penalty there was an 80 per cent chance he was going to score. When he was here he was our penalty taker, and he does that very well. He does a lot of things very well.
“He is in our dressing room at the moment – because the food in our dressing room is better than in theirs! People who play together for five or six years, well they fight, and our defenders did not make life easy for him at all, we played with great commitment.”