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.

Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there