Van Persie follows Pires' example to come of age with classic cameo

Arsenal 3 - Blackburn Rovers 0
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The Independent Online

There comes a point in every young footballer's career when the promise and potential finally translate into achievement on a grand scale and for Robin van Persie that moment came on Saturday afternoon. And, as is fitting for a player whose first season in England has been stalked by controversy, it was interrupted a second later by the crude force of Andy Todd's shoulder slamming into the Dutch striker's jaw.

There comes a point in every young footballer's career when the promise and potential finally translate into achievement on a grand scale and for Robin van Persie that moment came on Saturday afternoon. And, as is fitting for a player whose first season in England has been stalked by controversy, it was interrupted a second later by the crude force of Andy Todd's shoulder slamming into the Dutch striker's jaw.

Van Persie would not have chosen to celebrate his deliverance as an Arsenal player hunched on the Millennium Stadium turf checking his teeth were all in place, but when the throbbing cheekbone and cloudy head cleared he said it was worth the trouble. His two goals that sealed Arsenal's place in the FA Cup final came in an eight-minute substitute's cameo that confirmed that after a season of waiting, Arsène Wenger at last has a striker who is prepared to live up to his reputation.

It has been a long time coming. Even as the son of a Dutch sculptor, Van Persie has inherited a temperament that is more redolent of a Highbury pub at closing time than a football culture based on languid passing and effortless technique. Arsenal's angry Dutchman swung an elbow at Kieran Richardson in the Carling Cup match against Manchester United in December and against Southampton, at the end of February, was dismissed for two senseless challenges.

"The great players respect the game and they do what is needed," Wenger said. "It is more difficult when you have great talent because you can do a little bit too much at times. That's where Robin has improved. I always had hope for him because he is a great lover of football."

In the absence of Thierry Henry, and with Dennis Bergkamp an indistinct influence on the game, Van Persie's introduction on 82 minutes filled a void in Arsenal's attacking creativity where Jose Antonio Reyes had failed. Blackburn had responded with characteristic tenacity to the challenge of Wenger's side, collecting four bookings in the first half, three of which were for challenges on Patrick Vieira.

In reference to the treatment dealt to his captain by Garry Flitcroft and Aaron Mokoena, Wenger admitted that "six years ago, you know how it would have finished" but this time Vieira did not rise to the bait set for him by Blackburn's midfield. When Van Persie was introduced to the game, Mark Hughes had reluctantly sacrificed defensive cover to allow his team to chase an Arsenal goal on 42 minutes from Robert Pires after Kolo Touré's cross.

Van Persie's first goal came with just four minutes to play when he turned Lucas Neill outside the Blackburn area, wriggled past Todd and clipped a shot past the excellent Brad Friedel. There was a brief moment of resistance from Blackburn in the interim before Van Persie struck a shot from Pires' lay-off that he barely saw hit the net before Todd's shoulder connected.

The Blackburn defender insisted that he did not intentionally make contact, and both men seemed to be tracking the flight of Van Persie's shot when the collision took place, but the Arsenal striker was not quite so sure.

"It's hard for me to judge if it was an accident but he wasn't anywhere near me and then he suddenly jumped into me with his arm up," he said. "My mouth is still bruised and sore but there are no stitches. I was dazed not concussed."

"After the Southampton game, the manager sat me down and had a chat to me about being more calm and thinking more on the pitch about what I am doing. And after that I started to watch Robert Pires in training. He is such a great player and someone who scores goals, links play and makes it easier for team-mates. He has been a real inspiration.

"I can't emphasise how happy I am at Arsenal. Of course it has been an up and down season... I have tried to learn and get better."

As Arsenal now turn their attentions to Wednesday's match against Chelsea it will concern them that, for the first time since his involvement in the alleged illegal meeting with the Stamford Bridge club, Ashley Cole has admitted that his future might lie elsewhere. Asked whether he would be staying at Arsenal, the England full-back said on Saturday: "That's hard for me to say at the moment." With the judgement on the dispute close, that admission will have caused a sharp intake of breath at Highbury. They have to reclaim some pride against Chelsea this week and then salvage something from their season in the FA Cup final on 21 May.

In Van Persie it feels like they have gained a player, Cole's future must now be a lot less certain.

Goals: Pires (42) 1-0; Van Persie (86) 2-0; Van Persie (90) 3-0.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Senderos, Touré, Cole; Ljungberg (Fabregas, 50), Vieira, Gilberto, Pires; Reyes (Aliadière, 90), Bergkamp (Van Persie, 82). Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Cygan.

Blackburn Rovers (4-1-4-1): Friedel; Neill, Todd, Nelsen, Matteo (Stead, 82); Mokoena; Thompson (Savage, 64), Reid, Flitcroft (Emerton, 51), Pedersen; Dickov. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Tugay.

Referee: S Dunn (Gloucestershire).

Booked: Arsenal Gilberto, Cole; Blackburn Rovers Flitcroft, Thompson, Mokoena, Neill.

Man of the match: Vieira.

Attendance: 52,077.

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