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Robin van Persie: Manchester United's new Cantona?

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Ever since the mercurial Frenchman Eric Cantona chose to hang up his boots at the end of the 1996-1997 season after leading United to four Premier League titles and two FA Cup victories in five years, Old Trafford has desperately called out for a replacement for the striker, a player who could inspire United the way he did. 

The former Leeds United striker's immediate replacement was Tottenham's Teddy Sheringham, a willing worker and scorer in the 1999 Champions League final, but nowhere near Cantona in terms of talent. The quartet of Sheringham, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer led United to the greatest season in the club's history in 1999, but were clearly individually inferior to the jaw-droppingly inspiring Cantona.

Ruud van Nistelrooy was a fantastic acquisition for United, scoring 150 goals in 219 games, but it has to be mentioned that he wasn't part of the greatest squads in recent memory, and only won one Premier League title while at the club. When United spent a record £30.75m on Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov, the Old Trafford faithful finally felt like they had a striker equivalent to the legendary Cantona in terms of skill and technique. 

However, it wasn't to be, as Berbatov failed to live up to the hefty price tag and the enormous weight of expectations from him, despite dazzling on several occasions.

When Sir Alex Ferguson paid Arsenal £24m for club captain Robin van Persie in August 2012 in an attempt to launch an instant challenge for neighbours Manchester City's Premier League title, you wouldn't have blamed fans for wondering whether the striker was a good investment to take on, despite having just had the best year of his career, due to the fact that he had just turned 29 and had a lengthy history of injury problems. 

Twelve months on, those very fans will be deriding themselves for ever having doubted Sir Alex's judgment, as the Dutchman went on to score 30 goals in all competitions and led United to the title with four games to spare.

Van Persie was spectacular towards the beginning of the season, scoring crucial goals against Southampton, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City, before suffering a barren spell of 10 games without scoring - a period during which Sir Alex vehemently backed his overall contributions to the team. He ended the season on a high, scoring an awesome hat-trick against Aston Villa at home in the game that confirmed United's status as 20-time league champions. 

The Dutchman single-handedly led the United team all season, as Wayne Rooney suffered injuries and poor form, and Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck scored only 11 league goals between them, and he was voted as the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year by United supporters from around the world. 

Van Persie travelled with David Moyes' squad to Asia and Australia for their pre-season tour of the East, and was one of the most experienced figures in an extremely young side. He even captained the team as they beat Australian A-League All Stars 5-1 in Sydney. 

Watching van Persie lead a side filled with promising youngsters - Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Rafael & Fabio da Silva, Tom Cleverley, Wilfried Zaha, Jesse Lingard, David de Gea, Adnan Januzaj, Michael Keane, Scott Wootton and Danny Welbeck - into a new era for United, one just can't help but go back 20 years in the club's history and think about how Eric Cantona joined a young United side yet to win a league title under Sir Alex Ferguson and was so pivotal in inspiring the promising talents of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary & Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham to several trophy-laden seasons.

Cantona served as the centre of United's transition from the 80's of Bryan Robson and Steve Bruce to the 90's of the Fledglings. Seeing as the likes of Ryan Giggs, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand cannot be expected to carry on playing forever, United will probably look to van Persie to lead the young players over the next few years, and he has proved that he is more than capable of the task.

Several of United's players from the 90's swear by Cantona's influence on the side, and even now, reminisce about the quality he brought to the team's training sessions, quality that was seamlessly transferred to the team's performances on the pitch, as can be seen from the 10-point gap between United and their nearest rivals. 

The former Arsenal forward provided a similar level of quality, and single-handedly dragged United across the finishing line on several occasions when the team looked like dropping points in games. United finished 11 points above second-placed Manchester City.

While Cantona was only 26 when he joined United, he spent just five years at the club, and although Van Persie will soon turn 30, David Moyes should easily be able to get at least three seasons of the highest quality from the Dutchman.

Cantona was undisputedly the cornerstone of Sir Alex's title-winning machine of the 1990's - and United's glut of domestic and European successes owes a lot to the Frenchman fondly christened the "King" - van Persie has proved in his one season at United that he has the ability to be a similar leader for David Moyes as the Scot sets out to make his mark on the glorious history of Manchester United.

Sir Alex Ferguson said from the very beginning that he expected van Persie to have a huge impact at Old Trafford, but even he could surely not have anticipated the level of that impact. Now we all know for sure that the search for the next Cantona - not only in terms of ability, but influence on the team's future as well - has finally ended.

Cantona is neither the club's leading goalscorer nor the highest appearance-maker, his main contribution to the club being his inspirational leadership, and if van Persie can continue to provide that same level of leadership and quality on the pitch over the next few years, who knows, 20 years from now, we could be talking about him with the same level of reverence as the Old Trafford legend Eric Cantona.

 

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Topics:
Premier League
Manchester United
Eric Cantona
Football
Robin Van Persie

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This article has been written by a member of the GiveMeSport Writing Academy and does not represent the views of GiveMeSport.com or SportsNewMedia. The views and opinions expressed are solely that of the author credited at the top of this article. GiveMeSport.com and SportsNewMedia do not take any responsibility for the content of its contributors.

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