Sir Alex Fergusonrevealed last night that Robin van Persie could have been a Manchester United player – but the Dutch destroyer slipped through the net despite a top-level scouting mission to Holland.
Ferguson knows Van Persie is the chief danger to his team at the Emirates Stadium today as United attempt to stay close to Manchester rivals City at the top of the table.
But the Old Trafford boss confesses it could have been a different story had United followed through their interest in the kid from Rotterdam when he was just a young, up-and-coming star.
Fergie dispatched his spies to watch Van Persie play for Feyenoord reserves. But the striker – who had a wild streak then – was sent off and United’s interest in him fizzled out.
Arsene Wenger and Arsenal stayed on the case and eventually snapped him up after a series of clashes with Feyenoord coach Bert van Marwijk.
Fergie doesn’t often miss out on players he really wants.
But Van Persie can now be added to a list that includes two other stars who infamously got away from United – Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer.
“There’s no doubt Van Persie’s goals have helped Arsenal tremendously this season,” said Ferguson. “The lad has matured, but I remember us going to see him in a reserve team at Feyenoord way back.
“I think he got sent off that day in the first half – or he walked off, I can’t quite remember what happened.
“We left it alone at the time but he’s turned out to be a fantastic player.
“It wasn’t anything to do with any disciplinary problems – it was just that we didn’t see enough of him at the time and Arsenal were closer to the situation than we were.
“He’s scored 18 goals in the league and his form is fantastic this season.
“He’s carrying Arsenal in terms of goals, but you could say the same about Barcelona, in that if you stop Messi they aren’t the same team. Or if you stop Ronaldo at Real Madrid they aren’t the same team either. All the top teams have a player who makes the difference, like David Silva at City. For many years, it was Didier Drogba at Chelsea.”
United demolished Arsenal 8-2 at the end of August and Ferguson comes to London seeking goals – with wing star Antonio Valencia on fire.
“Antonio is back to his best form now, there’s no doubt about that,” said Ferguson. “It took him a bit of time to get over the couple of injuries he’s had. The latest one, it took him longer than we thought.
“Also, Nani’s form was so good at the time I was having to play Valencia at right-back so he’s had to cope with that and probably thinking ‘am I going to get to play in my normal position at right wing?’
“But his form has got better and better and now I have moved Nani to the left hand side we’ve seen Antonio come back to his best form, which is pleasing. If you can identify good wide players, I think they are important.
“I think it is always the way we have been at United and as long as the wide players have the appetite to work, then fine.
“The ones we have always had like David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Ashley Young and Nani, have a fantastic work-rate. They have always contributed in that respect.
“With Antonio, he can go past his man and he tries to do that most of the time.
“But he’s got enough to also come inside and he can pass the ball well.
“He has a lot going for him. Last week against Bolton, he was starting to show his real top form.
“He has been threatening, you can see gradually he is getting to that point and he is in really good form now.
“He is effective like Ronaldo was but in a different way, of course.”