Robin van Persie will decide the Premier League title, says Martin O'Neill

More than just goals, striker is the talisman who drives Mancheser United on, declares Sunderland manager

The talk will always shape towards Robin van Persie, a player about whom Martin O'Neill had no compunction in saying late on Saturday that he is Manchester United's Lionel Messi and whose decision to take his boots to Old Trafford rather than the Etihad gave Sir Alex Ferguson's club a "psychologically massive" boost, as the Sunderland manager sees it.

O'Neill sees no danger in United being so dependent on one player, whose 15 goals represent more than a quarter of the club's entire season's haul in all competitions and who scored their first in Saturday's 3-1 home win over Sunderland. Henrik Larsson had the same kind of impact for the Celtic team he managed from 2000, he agreed. "[Van Persie] can get goals out of very little. It looks like nothing is happening, you have players in the area, but all of a sudden he has opened up a gap," O'Neill said. He reflected that sometimes football all boils down to having a talisman like that. "Would Barcelona have the same effect if Lionel Messi didn't play? They are a very talented team, but without him you don't know, because Messi is their talisman."

But there was a subsidiary story, too. Reclaiming the title will be about more than Van Persie's goals and, on an afternoon when United failed to improve on their record of four clean sheets by conceding to another aerial attack, Phil Jones' first Premier League start of the season slipped by almost without notice. It should not have done.

We learnt a little more about why Jones shushed the Manchester City fans after the derby win – "the substitutes were getting a lot of stick from the City fans behind the dugout," he revealed – yet his overriding motivation is to set back on track Sir Bobby Charlton's grand comparisons of him with Duncan Edwards. That proclamation, only a year ago, seems a little dated now.

Jones was also asked at the weekend about the perception that he might be a future United captain. "It sounds great and it's nice if people think that one day that might happen, but there is a long way to go," he said, which is right. After that very encouraging start last season, back and knee injuries have set him well back.

The right-back role Jones was given against Sunderland was by no means his preference, even though Fabio Capello assigned it him in the pressure game at Podgorica when England sought European Championship qualification two years ago. But he reminded us what a mobile and aware player he is – driving forward, ready to give and go, assured enough now in this company to demand the ball back and be frustrated when he doesn't get it.

At times, he and Antonio Valencia were operating so close together on the flank they shared that the Ecuadorean looked redundant and Jones was at the hub of the excellent first half-hour's football. More defensively solid than Rafael – who still often looks headless, whatever all the current admirers might say – Jones burst out into his natural midfield territory, too. His place at the nexus of a cross-field move was overlooked amid the early havoc United wreaked.

The momentum of interchanged passes with Tom Cleverley took Jones out into midfield, to thrust another clean pass first time to Ashley Young and race for the return ball that didn't come. Jones doesn't make it look effortless. He's always red-faced with endeavour. He appeared to pick up a knock in that first period, and never quite scaled the same heights in the second. As he sustained a knee injury on his second day back in pre-season training after a back problem, consolidation will take time.

The same goes for another of England's hopes, Sunderland's Adam Johnson, who was invisible. "Where he is having difficulty is that, at [Manchester] City, he was coming on with 25 minutes left and having little cameo roles," O'Neill said. "With us, he is having to start the games with a lot of added pressure, naturally."

O'Neill, who did not dismiss out of hand the idea of Fraizer Campbell leaving in January, is living with the consequences of a fiscal squeeze, after the boom days of Steve Bruce, and it is an austerity which leaves his side facing an end-of-season downgrade. There were extenuating circumstances for this defeat. O'Neill's only two functioning full-backs were injured, for instance, and his squad is pitifully thin. But on this evidence it looks like things will be touch-and-go.

That's why it was so magnanimous of O'Neill to discuss Van Persie, a talent currently beyond his dreams. The Dutchman's decision to play in red not blue will, fitness permitting, define who takes the title, O'Neill believes.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform