Van Persie turns from sinner to saviour

Blackburn Rovers 0 - Arsenal 1
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The Independent Online

Three weeks on from the red card at Southampton that prompted the second of Arsène Wenger's two notable explosions of temper this season, Robin van Persie took a substantial step closer to redemption at Ewood Park, where his goal two minutes before half-time decided an FA Cup semi-final rehearsal that was otherwise disappointingly sterile.

Three weeks on from the red card at Southampton that prompted the second of Arsène Wenger's two notable explosions of temper this season, Robin van Persie took a substantial step closer to redemption at Ewood Park, where his goal two minutes before half-time decided an FA Cup semi-final rehearsal that was otherwise disappointingly sterile.

The 21-year-old Dutch striker was blamed for costing his side two points at St Mary's, where Arsenal had led 1-0 against a side themselves reduced to 10 men, only to lose the numerical advantage seven minutes into the second half when Van Persie, already on a caution, needlessly hacked at Graeme Le Saux.

Yesterday, having been due to sit on the bench, he found himself on from the start after Freddie Ljungberg aggravated an ankle injury while warming up.

It was a chance to regain favour with Wenger and he took it in the way his manager wanted, spinning through a gap obligingly left by Blackburn's central defenders before dancing around the goalkeeper Brad Friedel and rolling the ball into an empty net.

"I have not forgiven him for being sent off at Southampton," Wenger said. "Although you have to accept sometimes that young players make mistakes, it does not change the fact that two points were lost.

"But it was part of his rehabilitation today to show another side of his talent and he gave a team-orientated performance rather than a selfish one. He has something special inside and I feel there is much more to come from him."

Van Persie, accused sometimes of arrogance, is now a model of contrition. Having unwittingly discovered that provoking Wenger's rage was not the preserve of Sir Alex Ferguson, he admitted his manager's fury was entirely justified.

"It was stupid but I have worked hard and kept quiet since then and this is a great day for me," Van Persie said.

It was an optimistic one for Arsenal all round, advancing their claims on second place in the Premiership and giving them a psychological edge before the semi-final in Cardiff on 16 April, when they meet Blackburn again. By then, they will be able to field a very different line-up with Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Ljungberg and Robert Pires likely to be off their casualty list. In their absence, Arsenal had six players aged 21 and under.

"It was a young side anyway but after losing Freddie in the warm-up, it was almost an under-21 team," Wenger said. "It was a test for them against a side who made the game very physical and on a pitch that was not the best. There were some moments when their inexperience showed but we did not give too many chances away, apart from the last minute when [Steven] Reid was through."

That was Blackburn's disappointment. They looked the stronger force in the first half but, apart from a long-range shot by Reid and a header by Morten Gamst Pedersen that Jens Lehmann plucked from under the bar, did not create enough.

That was to be expected, perhaps, from the side with the joint poorest scoring record in the Premiership. Solid defence is the key quality under Mark Hughes and a goalless draw was widely predicted.

Rovers had kept five clean sheets in an unbeaten run of six games, so it came as a surprise that Andy Todd and Ryan Nelsen, whose partnership has been impressive, should leave a yawning gap when Ashley Cole turned cleverly and supplied Van Persie for the decisive goal.

Blackburn lost their momentum and it took until stoppage time for a real chance of an equaliser, Paul Dickov's dummy allowing Pedersen's pass to zip through to Reid, who reacted well to the opportunity but dragged his shot wide.

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