There was something entirely fitting that it was Robin Van Persie who dispelled any remaining doubts the title was heading back to Old Trafford on Monday night when he latched onto Rooney’s precise ball over the top and dispatched it emphatically into the corner of the net, with a volley so perfectly-executed it will be etched into the memory banks for years to come.
Prior to that moment, and viewing the season in its entirety, Rafeal’s long-range thunderbolt against QPR was, in all probability, United’s most eye-catching strike. Kagawa’s goal against Norwich, that delightfully clever pass into the corner of the net to wrong-foot the keeper and at least half of the stadium, was one of the most enjoyable. Rooney’s twenty yard drive into the top corner during the same game also merits repeat viewings. There has been a raft of other memorable goals: Cleverley’s incisive finish versus West Ham or Nani’s sublime chip over Petr Cech, amongst others.
But my favourite goal is none of these. My United goal of the season, by some distance, arrived on 25th August last year. It wasn’t part of a momentous game, nor was it was a decisive, result-securing winner. It is unlikely to bother those compiling the classic goals of 2012-13. It certainly can no longer be even considered as his most stunning strike in United colours, but Van Persie’s tenth minute pounce on Evra’s low cross and instinctive lash into the top corner against Fulham in United’s first home game of the season remains my favourite moment of this campaign.
Some goals go beyond their visual impact. The rash claim from Charlie Wyett of The Sun, predicting (back in August) that United’s star signing would fail to reach double figures for United following his summer switch from Arsenal, still causes amusement whenever it is passed around on Twitter (a regular occurrence) but the humour is found in hindsight. Expectations were undoubtedly high when we signed RVP, colossal in fact, but, despite his brilliant final season for Arsenal, nothing in football can ever be certain.
Confidence is one thing, knowledge is another. Enough high-profile players have failed to live up their billing at Old Trafford down the years, burdened by the expectations attached to a mammoth price tag, but if there were any lingering doubts about Van Persie’s impact, they were immediately banished with one exuberant swish of his left boot. More importantly, it was the assurance and ease with which he lashed home his debut goal; this was not a player who was going to struggle to adapt.
The ten games when he failed to score recently illustrate how swiftly pressure can build on a striker – in other positions across the pitch, a player’s performances are more subjectively judged but a forward is held hostage by cold facts. Van Persie’s ecstatic reaction to the penalty against Stoke which concluded that goal-less sequence vividly demonstrated his heartfelt relief. Now imagine that pressure transferred to his first ten games if he had failed to score: it would have been amplified enormously, creating room for apprehension to flourish.
The importance of the goal is not merely confined to its significance – leaving all other issues aside, it’s still a wondrous strike, embodying all of the player’s greatest qualities. The cross from Evra was, in all honesty, no more than adequate, jabbed low into the box, bouncing awkwardly, until it was suddenly converted from a decent delivery to an excellent assist as RVP, with a sharp movement to his left, connected acrobatically with his favoured foot, arcing the ball towards the net with such alacrity Mark Schwartzer looked painfully slow to react. It’s an always a testament to the sweetness of a strike when the keeper is unprepared for the shot, belatedly launching into a dive as he despairingly watches the ball sail past him.
As with all the best moments in football, it was followed by silence. Many strikes are sandwiched by similar crowd reactions: the rise, as one, from their seats in expectation as the chance occurs, and then the roar that greets the ball flying towards the back of the net. The greatest shots are pursued by a moment’s stillness, the briefest duration containing a collective contemplation, a whole stadium rapidly processing what they were witnessing. It’s the moments you don’t quite expect or anticipate that cause the cheer to be momentarily delayed, as fans swiftly digest what is occurring. After RVP had connected with the ball, it smashed into the back of the net before Old Trafford erupted to acclaim its new hero.
His recent volley against Villa will certainly be classed as his most memorable goal. His last-minute equaliser against West Ham in the FA Cup, when he collected Giggs’s pass of the season and with just three touches drove the ball into the back of the net, should arguably be seen as his best. What is undeniable is that they are two goals the vast majority of forwards across Europe would not have been able to score.
His first cannot quite compare. Yet, even accounting for that fact, the first time he fired himself onto United’s score-sheet will always be my favourite moment of this campaign. The best goal of the season? Not quite. The most significant? Undoubtedly. Here’s to many more.