Early Doors

Dutch double disguises defensive doubts

On a night when fresh questions were raised about the solidity of Manchester United's defence, it was at least comforting that in Robin van Persie they have a striker capable of providing a range of answers to almost any problem in attack.

Tuesday night's Champions League away win at CFR Cluj supplied further evidence of the Dutchman's brilliance as he scored twice: the first an admittedly fortunate flick of the shoulder, the second a quite brilliant swish of the boot. Luck and genius made for a heady combination as he unpicked Cluj twice.

And to think there were those who questioned whether Manchester United needed to buy him this summer. Sure, they probably could have done with a new defender and a box-to-box midfielder as well, but Early Doors challenges anyone to claim with a straight face that the £24 million paid for the striker isn't one of the deals of the summer.

We all knew Van Persie was a sublime finisher - one glance at his achievements last season would tell you that. But the real question was whether, having been the focal point for an entire team at Arsenal, captain, top scorer and often creator-in-chief as well, he could slot into an attack that already had a grunting alpha male patrolling it in the form of Wayne Rooney.

Last night the two were used in tandem from the start for the first time and it was Van Persie - if not quite a silverback then certainly greying on the sides - who was the man beating his chest and proclaiming dominance over this corner of Transylvania.

On what became a rather nervy night for United, Van Persie pulled his side level with a fortunate connection from a Rooney free-kick. But it was the second goal that will have United fans fantasising about what this partnership may produce in future.

Rooney clipped a gorgeous curling pass over the top of the defence that dropped nicely for his Dutch colleague. Van Persie extended his left leg and with an extravagant sweep across his body squeezed an instinctive volley past the keeper and just inside the far post with the outside of his left boot.

It was an archetypal Van Persie volley in that you would struggle to imagine another player scoring it. His career has been sprinkled liberally with such moments.

The nascent partnership between the two forwards is, on last night's evidence, full of promise, bursting with talent and a prospect to be feared by Premier League defences. More so because Rooney says he is happy to drop deeper and play off the big summer signing, who in turn is more than happy to be the beneficiary of Rooney's generosity.

"Everything starts with a good pass, so I have to thank Wayne for that," Van Persie said of his second goal on Tuesday night. "Not many players can make a pass like that. When it came to him I knew he could see that pass and give it the way I wanted it. I think it is the first time we have started together, we were both really pleased with that. We did it together tonight."

Rooney added in brusquer fashion: "I don't mind the deeper role. It's a position where you get on the ball more often."

The brace took Van Persie to a tally of seven goals in six starts following his move to United, and given the totality of his work over the past 18 months to two years there is little doubt he is now the finest genuine centre-forward operating in European football. Falcao runs him close, but for sheer unadulterated class you won't find better than the Dutchman.

That means by necessity Rooney will be operating much deeper for United, linking midfield and attack. And this is a player who scored 34 goals in all competitions last season.

But while it is clear that they will be tasked with two very different roles, they are harnessed to a common cause: smashing teams to pieces. And they may have to, because the win over Cluj also exposed further concerns about the state of the United back four.

After a first-half horror show against Spurs at the weekend, United found themselves behind for the sixth time in nine games this season and it was, to quote an irate Ferguson, a "shocker, an absolute shocker".

Patrice Evra was made to look like a novice by a diagonal ball into the right channel and after offering little to no resistance to a cross it was then left to Jonny Evans to fail to pick up his man as Pantelis Kapetanos put Cluj in front.

With Evans subsequently sustaining a thigh injury ahead of Sunday's trip to Newcastle, joining Nemanja Vidic, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in the treatment room, Sir Alex Ferguson may be forced to field Scott Wootton for his Premier League debut.

Defensive injuries are nothing new for United, neither is some unconvincing form for Evra. But the fact that both remain significant issues going into October is a matter of some concern.

Still, while Van Persie is operating at his glorious best, at least United can feel supremely confident in their efficacy at one end of the pitch.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "He has no role at the club. He is a runner. We sometimes co-operate with his school. For example, if a player needs to work on some aspects of his physical side, we send them there for preparation. It is a fantastic school, but he is not directly involved with our team. This summer it has been Ignasi Miquel and a few youth players. Has he come back faster? Not fast enough to win a gold medal!" - Arsene Wenger explains why Michael Johnson was spotted at Arsenal's training ground.

FOREIGN VIEW: Last night witnessed a truly gruesome injury as Barcelona captain Carles Puyol, on his return from a knee injury, fell heavily on his arm and dislocated his elbow. His arm was sticking out at an unnatural angle and the defender will now miss the upcoming clasico against Real Madrid. The video doesn't make for pleasant viewing, with Dani Alves saying: "We are really saddened by the situation."

COMING UP: Manchester City host German champions Borussia Dortmund at Etihad Stadium, while Arsenal take on Olympiacos at home. We will have live text commentary on both of those two games and the five other Champions League fixtures taking place at 7.45pm tonight, with Zenit v Milan kicking things off at 5pm for those who like an early start. Ahead of the City game we have profiled Dortmund midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, while Arsene Wenger has his say on Juergen Klopp later. Oh, and we have Jim White and Andy Mitten blogging, plus our Goal of the Week competition goes live at lunch.

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