Southampton 2 Manchester United 3: Hat-trick hero Robin finds a comic book finish
Perhaps Robin van Persie has been listening to the little boy in his mind again because this performance leapt from the pages of a comic book.
Deep in ‘Fergie Time’ at the end of the manager’s 1,000th league game in charge of Manchester United, up he popped — somehow free amid a crowd of red shirts — to glance Nani’s corner into the Southampton net.
With it, he completed a hat-trick, made amends for the penalty he fluffed with an attempted dink over goalkeeper Kelvin Davis and probably escaped his first blast of the manager’s hairdryer.
Hat-trick hero: Robin van Persie celebrates his stoppage time winner
Thump: Van Persie hits the first of his treble
Failed chip: Van Persie's cocky penalty was saved by Kevin Davis
Van Persie also reached 100 Premier League goals — at a rate better than one every two games — on a ground where he was sent off on his last visit. He banished doubts that his sublime form in front of goal may somehow vanish in the move from the Emirates Stadium to Old Trafford.
More importantly (so they always say) he rescued three points for his team from a game they were losing with 87 minutes on the clock, helped them avoid a fourth defeat in five away games and kept them in touch with early pacesetters Chelsea. Victory enables Sir Alex Ferguson to enjoy the international break with a clear head to conjure with the best way to utilise the gifts of Van Persie, particularly when Wayne Rooney returns to fitness.
For Southampton, the script was painfully familiar after their demise at Manchester City on the opening day of the campaign when they led before being overpowered by the champions.
Nigel Adkins bubbled with pride, but there are no points to go with the satisfaction he can take from three games back in the top flight. Next up is Arsenal away and Saints must seek a way to add substance to their stylish passing football.
United were commanding at times yet vulnerable at others and struggled to contain the threat of Rickie Lambert, even with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in tandem for the first time this year.
Lambert opened the scoring in the 16th minute, drifting deep to maximise his height advantage and climb easily above Rafael to meet Jason Puncheon’s cross.
Can't believe his eyes: Sir Alex Ferguson's 1000th Premier League game in charge of United was not his easiest
Riding high: Rickie Lambert leaps to head in Southampton's opener
Puncheon and Adam Lallana made life uncomfortable for full backs Rafael and Patrice Evra, pressing them with great intensity high up the pitch, as Morgan Schneiderlin proved a superb pivot for Southampton’s impressive midfield trio.
It was Schneiderlin, a French Under 21 star plucked at 18 from Strasbourg for £1.2million, who launched the move for the first goal, biting into a tackle to win the ball from Shinji Kagawa.
The ‘Lambert for England’ cries which rang around St Mary’s will not have escaped the attention of the watching Roy Hodgson.
Van Persie replied with what has become a trademark goal, taking the ball with perfect control on his chest and hitting a sweet volley with his left foot. Earlier, the Holland striker had cursed himself for slicing a similar chance wide from a long pass by Michael Carrick.
This time it was Antonio Valencia who delivered the ball from wide on the right. Van Persie dropped behind right back Nathaniel Clyne, who slipped as he tried to recover, took a touch and finished.
Star man: Van Persie delights in his third goal
South coast celebration: Saints players revel in taking the lead
The shot clipped the left knee of Kelvin Davis and flashed inside the post. Another back-post header restored Southampton’s lead and this time it was Schneiderlin who appeared late and finished from Lambert’s cross as Evra slipped.
Saints pushed on at a healthy tempo and the crowd crackled, detecting a famous win. Puncheon burst past Evra again and Anders Lindegaard, preferred in goal to David de Gea, saved at his near post. Lallana forced a save from Lindegaard, was then denied by a terrific block by Evra and only a sliding interception by Ferdinand prevented James Ward-Prowse tapping a Lambert cross into an empty net.
Ferguson made his own vital contribution to the twisting plot on the hour, sending on Paul Scholes and Nani. Scholes seized control, settling into his zone just in front of the centre halves. He sprayed some eye-catching passes across the pitch, but equally important was the way he generated a quicker rhythm for United which had been missing until this point.
Goal getters: Schneiderlin and Lambert celebrate
Annoyed: Van Persie reacts to his poor penalty
Nani helped United win the penalty, pouncing on a poor pass from keeper Davis and feeding the ball into Van Persie’s feet. As the striker collected the pass, he was wiped out clumsily from behind by Jos Hooiveld and Mike Dean awarded the penalty.
Saints disputed the decision but Van Persie grabbed the ball, put it on the spot and tried a cheeky chip. It had worked for him last season against Wolves but Davis threw up his left hand and clawed it away.
Scheming: Nigel Adkins has got Saints playing some super football
Adkins replaced his front three in an effort to wrest control back from the visitors, but the momentum had swung and Ferguson sent on Javier Hernandez, who immediately flashed a header wide.
Van Persie levelled from close range after Ferdinand headed a Rafael cross against the post and snatched the winner with a header from a corner, won by Hernandez and taken by Nani.
He has four goals in two starts since his £24m transfer — having taken advice from the ‘little boy inside me’ — and he stood before United fans after the final whistle with the match-ball at his feet as they sang his name.
Day in the life of a deadly Dutchman
4.26pm: Chests down Antonio Valencia's cross and beats Kelvin Davis to make it 1-1, wiping out Rickie Lambert's early strike
5.27pm: Clips a tame penalty, which Davis saves. United are 2-1 down at the time and the home fans mock him for his audacity. Bad move
5.46pm: The seconds are ticking away by Van Persie seizes on the rebound after Rio Ferdinand's header comes back off a post and drills in left-footed. But that's not all, folks...
5.50pm: Two minutes into injury time, Nani's corner floats into the area. RVP's clever header rips past Davis to bag all three points. That's what you get for £24million.