By Greg Stobart at Upton Park
It was almost as if the West Ham fans knew it was coming, howling their derision when the fourth official held up the board to indicate four minutes of added time.
Almost seconds later, Robin van Persie was lashing home a majestic equaliser to secure Manchester United a 2-2 draw and a replay that denied Joe Cole the perfect homecoming in the FA Cup third round tie at Upton Park.
Van Persie had arrived as a 68th minute substitute as United trailed to two James Collins headers, having taken the lead in the 23rd minute when Tom Cleverley swept in a lovely finish from 10 yards.
The Dutchman has now scored 22 goals in 26 appearances since joining United in August, and with each passing game Sir Alex Ferguson’s comparison of Van Persie with Eric Cantona becomes more apt.
Here, he took on Ryan Giggs’ sublime pass with a perfect first touch to speed past James Tomkins and fire an unstoppable right-footed shot low into the far corner past Jussi Jaaskelainen in front of 5,000 United fans in the Sir Trevor Brooking stand.
Van Persie claimed during the week that he is “surrounded by winners” at Old Trafford – and he is proving that to be his natural environment as time and again he steps up to make the difference for his side.
The 29-year-old striker and Sir Alex are a match made in heaven. There is no more ruthless striker in the country and Ferguson is merciless in his appetite for success.
Van Persie has clearly bought straight in to United’s fabled winning mentality, the almost mystical aura that has accompanied Sir Alex’s teams over his 26 years in charge at Old Trafford.
Not that it will surprise Arsenal supporters who saw Van Persie perform similar heroics for them last season, whether scoring a hat-trick in their victory at Chelsea, a late double to rescue his side against Sunderland or a last-minute winner at Anfield.
That is what he does, and he has stepped up this season to make the difference for United when his team have needed him most.
He has scored late winners at both Liverpool and Manchester City – United’s two greatest rivals – not to mention a game-changing hat-trick against Southampton and crucial goals in recent weeks; nine in his last nine, to be precise.
Here, West Ham had been more than holding their own and looked set for a famous victory in east London, but Van Persie and Ferguson had other ideas. With United seven points clear at the top of the Premier League, it keeps their dream of doing the double, or even the treble, alive.
Next month, Cristiano Ronaldo will receive a hero’s welcome when he returns to Old Trafford with Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16.
But United know that in Van Persie they now have a genuine superstar of their own, the kind of player whose quality shines in even the best squads, who leads from the front and drags his team-mates with him.
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