Roberto Mancini believes Robin van Persie has won the title for Manchester United.
A Sergio Aguero stoppage time strike on the final day of last season was the difference between City and United last term, with the Blues winning their first league title since 1968 on goal difference. So when the transfer window reopened at the end of the campaign, it was no surprise when Sir Alex Ferguson looked to find a new striker to add to his existing options.
Having scored 30 goals for Arsenal in the Premier League, van Persie was the obvious target, particularly when he revealed he would not be signing a new contract at the Emirates Stadium. This sparked a rush of interest in the 29-year-old from a host of clubs, stretching beyond the two Manchester clubs to the likes of Italian giants Juventus and Milan.
In the end, it was Ferguson who won the race to sign the Holland international, with an initial fee of £20million deemed too much for the Gunners to refuse for a player who would have been free to leave on a Bosman in 12 months time. The Holland international has gone on to become a huge favourite at Old Trafford, with 19 goals to his name in 30 league appearances.
This has helped United gain a 15-point lead over City, a margin which will be further extended if the Reds record a home win over their neighbours on Monday evening. And whilst Mancini has offered his opinion that such a gap is not a true reflection of the two squads, the Italian does concede that signing van Persie has been the difference as the Reds close on title number 20.
“United improved their team and bought important players,” said the City coach. “They bought van Persie, who has scored important goals. That’s why they’ve won this title, not because they’ve played better than us. United are a good team but van Persie has made a difference.”
When City hold their post-mortem in regards to the failed defence of their title, Mancini will no doubt refer to the summer transfer window of last year as the defining factor. Whereas United added to their ranks with van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, the Japan international, the Blues had to make do with the likes of Javi Garcia, Scott Sinclair, Jack Rodwell and Maicon who, whilst gifted players, are probably a cut below the standard required of champions.
The arrival of van Persie has given United an added threat in attack, yet the statistics show that they had actually scored more goals (74) at this stage of last season than this (70). But it is not merely the amount of goals the Dutchman has scored, but the importance of his strikes: the stoppage time winner at the Etihad Stadium, the winning goal at Anfield, and the hat-trick at Southampton in a 3-2 win are the examples which immediately spring to mind.
Van Persie may be going through something of a barren run at the moment – he has not scored in his last nine appearances in all competitions – but as Mancini will testify, the damage has already been done.