Van Persie shows Wenger what Arsenal would miss

Arsenal 2 Sunderland 1

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The Independent Football

You could tell by the way that he was afforded his own rapturous farewell that the Emirates home support knows Robin Van Persie is the difference between Arsenal maintaining their place among the elite of English football, and the prospect of slipping away into mediocrity.

There was a time when Van Persie was just one of a number of marquee names at Arsenal but now, with the possible exception of the injured Jack Wilshere, and arguably the goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, the captain is the only alpha left. Yesterday he carried Arsenal over the line through sheer force of will and that unique talent which makes him, at his best, such an arresting player to watch.

Van Persie scored the first within 31 seconds, Arsenal's quickest-ever goal in the Premier League, and the second with eight minutes remaining. That goal, the matchwinner, was a free-kick swept in with Van Persie's left foot from the right side and, after a second half during which Arsenal had rallied following the shock of Sebastian Larsson's equaliser, it was just about what they deserved.

This is Arsenal in 2011, a team that has come to rely heavily on the talents of one man who has only two years left on his contract and, increasingly, holds the key to the last chapter of Arsène Wenger's time at the club. In his programme notes before the game, Van Persie addressed the issue of his future, claiming that he was "committed to Arsenal" and despite the stories about him selling his house he had already found somewhere new. "And yes," he wrote, "it is in London!"

But on the prospect of him extending his contract beyond the summer of 2013, there was no mention. Along with Thomas Vermaelen, Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin, Arsenal now find themselves in another waiting game with players who have less than two years left on their contracts and appear to be biding their time to see which direction the club is taking.

It was Wenger who later offered a more insightful perspective on the Van Persie situation when he accepted there was no guarantee that the player would stay.

"For me, commitment is as long as you are at the club, you give 100 per cent until the last day of your contract. That is what I call commitment. You have players with 10-year contracts who are not committed. He [Van Persie] knows we are ready to talk about it. The most important is how much you are committed for the cause as long as you are at the club."

Would it not, Wenger was asked, be ideal if Van Persie was to sign? "Unfortunately the ideal situation does not exist often," Wenger said. "The ideal situation is that he extends his length of contract but if he does not we have to respect that. What is important is that he plays like he plays."

It was not exactly the assurance that Van Persie would be staying. In fact it was far from it. As for the player himself, for all his protestations of commitment in the programme and in his post-match Sky Sports interview, all that was really clarified was that he has a new house and it is in London. As for the rest, we will just have to wait.

When the adrenaline wears off, even Van Persie will have to concede that yesterday was not a performance in which Arsenal can claim to have turned the corner, even though they rose five places to 10th with the win.

As has been their way, they started the match strong before tailing off. The introduction of Arshavin on 61 minutes gave them a jolt and he very nearly won the game for them himself but otherwise many of the old problems remained.

For Steve Bruce, whose team stay 16th, this was another game in which defensive mistakes cost them dear. Undone by Gervinho's run in the first minute, Van Persie pulled away from Wes Brown to drill his first goal low past Simon Mignolet. On 12 minutes he turned Kieran Richardson and chipped Mignolet. He hit the post with a shot reminiscent of Eric Cantona's famous goal for Manchester United against Sunderland in December 1996.

Bruce said that the "defining moment" of the game was just before half-time when Szczesny saved from Lee Cattermole from three yards after he connected with Stephane Sessegnon's ball back across goal. Mikel Arteta handled the ball outside his own area on 31 minutes and Larsson scored with a superb free-kick.

Bruce was forced to substitute Larsson on the hour after the player came down with cramp; a result, Bruce said, of his considerable exertions for Sweden in midweek. "We have to admit that it's been a disappointing start, but stick together, stick with it, and it will turn," Bruce said. "We've played poorly once, and that was at Norwich, so we must make sure that we stick at it. We will get there."

The Sunderland manager described the Emirates as a "grumbling stadium" and, as he pointed out himself, he knows what a grumbling stadium sounds like. There was a time when Bruce's team looked like they might be able to get something from the match but they were rather clinging on by the time Brown fouled Van Persie and Arsenal's No 10 took it upon himself to dispatch the free-kick.

Wenger admitted that there was a "small chance" that Aaron Ramsey, who has a hamstring problem, will be back for Wednesday's Champions League encounter with Marseilles. It looks as if Kieran Gibbs, who was substituted with a stomach problem yesterday, will also miss that trip.

At the moment, however, Van Persie is up and running and has 28 goals in 34 games this calendar year. He is the one man that Arsenal cannot afford to be without.

29: Seconds after which Robin van Persie opened the scoring. It was the fastest Premier League goal of the season, but trails Ledley King's 10.4s effort for Spurs at Bradford in 2000.

Substitutes: Arsenal Santos 6 (Gibbs, 50), Arshavin 7 (Gervinho, 67), Benayoun (Rosicky, 76). Sunderland Ji 5 (Larsson, 67), Wickham (Sessegnon, 79), Gardner (Cattermole, 87).

Booked: Arsenal Song, Koscielny, Van Persie. Sunderland Vaughan, Larsson, Brown.

Man of the match Van Persie.

Match rating 6/10.

Possession: Arsenal 60% Sunderland 40%.

Attempts on target: Arsenal 11 Sunderland 4.

Referee H Webb (South Yorkshire). Attendance 60,078.