Can Arsenal stop Robin van Persie inflicting more misery?

It is hard not to wonder what the “little boy” inside Robin van Persie says these days. The Dutchman cited the child within as he turned down a new contract at Arsenal and resisted strong overtures from Manchester City to sign for Manchester United in the summer of 2012.

“I always listen to the little boy inside of me in these situations — when you have to make the hard decisions in life,” he said. “What does he want? That boy was screaming for Man United.”

But that boy may be screaming the club’s name in exasperation at present after United’s disastrous campaign that found yet another darkened corner on Sunday, when Fulham snatched a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford to leave United nine points behind Liverpool in the race for fourth place.

Van Persie would no doubt point to the Premier League winners’ medal he secured last season but when he made that controversial decision to leave north London, Sir Alex Ferguson was a significant factor in his thinking.

Rene Meulensteen was also influential, and the fact Van Persie, 30, enjoyed only one season under the pair before Ferguson retired and his fellow Dutchman left to eventually take up a manager’s position at Fulham has complicated what was supposed to be the fulfilment of a career on the periphery of winning trophies.

There were few players cutting a more disbelieving figure than Van Persie as Ferguson addressed the Manchester crowd following their final home game last season, against Swansea.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, Arsenal had gritted their teeth as they formed a guard of honour to welcome Van Persie back to Emirates Stadium. It will be a more hostile reception this time, especially because Van Persie abandoned his original stance of refusing to celebrate against his former club when scoring the only goal in United’s 1-0 back in November.

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He endured an endless stream of abuse from away fans that day and will be the subject of considerable mockery tonight, with United trailing the Gunners by 14 points. Yet Arsenal have plenty to prove themselves. Humiliated by Liverpool last weekend and usurped by Chelsea in the title race, the Gunners must show the wheels are not falling off this month, as they have done with near regularity in recent years.

“It is a good opportunity four days later to respond straight away and that is what we want to do,” said Arsene Wenger. “After that I can talk and talk and talk, it is action that will decide things. You would never question the professionalism of this group, maybe they wanted to do so well that they were a bit too cautious, I don’t know.”

United may be a wounded animal under David Moyes but, despite a non-existent title defence, they retain individuals capable of harming any opposition. The Reds may have opted against signing Mesut Ozil when his availability was circulated last August but they ended up signing a player of similar attributes in Juan Mata.

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