Van Persie eases Wenger's quest

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The Independent Online

If replacing Patrick Vieira was a problem suddenly thrust into Arsène Wenger's lap, preparing for life after Dennis Bergkamp is one the Arsenal manager has had a few seasons to contemplate.

Indeed, Bergkamp has postponed his departure so many times there is the temptation to think that Wenger was worried he would never fill the void.

Therefore the Dutchman's announcement that this will be his last campaign, bringing an end to 11 seasons in north London, brings Robin van Persie's current form under the microscope, and it bears close scrutiny. No one would claim that the striker has all the attributes of his acclaimed compatriot, but he is looking more and more comfortable. Eight goals in eight games bear that out.

Wenger sought to praise the 22-year-old last night, especially given the way he has recovered from the shock of rape allegations in his homeland last summer, which led to him spending two weeks in jail.

"It looked like he took some time to recover," the Frenchman said. "It was a mental growing-up process. He has become more mature, stronger. It takes time when you're so young. I worried for him and Marco van Basten [the Netherlands manager] did as well. I had him on the phone once or twice. Certainly he appreciates football more having had it taken away from him.

"He was 21 and adored and the next day he was in confinement for two weeks. It was a shock for him."

Wenger says Van Persie's approach to life at Arsenal has not changed despite the allegations, which still hang over him, but which are less likely to be pursued the longer the charges are left, according to Dutch sources. In the meantime, Van Persie has also bulked himself up to cope after his first season in the Premiership.

"Physically he looks stronger," added Wenger. "Last year he looked a bit weak to adapt to the English game. Then in the second part of last season he started to score some goals, show more presence."

Wenger is not burdening Van Persie with the label of "the next Bergkamp," citing the 36-year-old's lingering influence. "I'm still worried about replacing Dennis," he said. "Even if Robin comes through, Dennis had great consistency and was a great influence in the dressing-room and on the pitch."

* In last night's FA Cup second-round ties, Grays Athletic, the Conference leaders, were beaten 3-0 at League Two side Mansfield Town. Bristol Rovers, who have been struggling in League Two, drew 1-1 at League One side Port Vale to earn a replay.

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