There are not many footballers who win a game in injury time with their hat-trick goal and then feel obliged to apologise to their team-mates afterwards, but then there are not many who can hold a candle to the extravagantly gifted Robin van Persie.
The old belief that every brilliant player must conquer his flaws as well as his genius was never so evident as in Van Persie's performance, which included a 68th-minute penalty miss, a preposterously self-indulgent "Panenka" penalty saved by Kelvin Davis with Manchester United trailing 2-1. It was Van Persie at his wasteful worst, a bad case of I-dink-therefore-I-am.
But his response was breathtaking. He scored in the 87th and 92nd minutes to win the game and break Southampton hearts, walking off with the match ball in his hands.
It was Sir Alex Ferguson's 1,000th league game in charge of United and it would have been one hell of a day even without Van Persie's injury-time intervention. Southampton were within a whisker of an incredible victory, having twice taken the lead in a match so open and exhilarating that it felt like a cup final.
Saints were excellent at times, exploiting the weaknesses of their opponents and coaxing great performances from good players.
If one marvelled at Van Persie for the cold-blooded execution of his three goals, one puzzled at the inexplicable instinct which took possession of him just before he hit his penalty – the first time he had ever tried to dink one, he said.
"I don't know what I was thinking," the Dutchman said. "I wanted to hit it hard like I always do and then in the last second I changed my mind. It wasn't good enough ... at 2-1 down, you can't take a penalty like that. Something went wrong big time."
Even Ferguson had to admit that at 2-1, with home goals from Rickie Lambert in the first half and then Morgan Schneiderlin on 55 minutes, he thought his team were "well out of it". But around the hour he sent on Paul Scholes for Tom Cleverley and it gave United more purpose in midfield, starting with the penalty they won and then the two winning goals.
"I have to say a big thank you to Paul Scholes," Van Persie said. "Every single pass he hit was the right one and there were a couple of unbelievable passes over 30 to 40 metres. With him you always have to be on your toes because anything can happen. For me, he is the man of the match."Reuse content