In the weeks preceding Louis van Gaal’s appointment as the new manager of Manchester United, Robin van Persie could barely conceal his delight. The coach who made him captain of the Netherlands was coming to Old Trafford to replace the hapless David Moyes - and suddenly, after a season of bitter disappointment and frustration, things were rosy again in Van Persie’s world.
United fans were optimistic that the club’s decision to appoint Van Gaal would herald the return of the world-class Van Persie while simultaneously signalling the end of his lacklustre alter-ego - the out-of-sorts Van Persie who endured an injury-hit campaign under Moyes and, at his worst, looked utterly disinterested.
This feeling of optimism was further enhanced thanks to the World Cup finals in Brazil where, briefly, Van Persie appeared to have rediscovered his best form. Fit and confident, the Dutchman looked dangerous playing in Van Gaal’s system and finished the tournament with four goals to his name.
It’s no secret that Van Persie and Van Gaal have an excellent working relationship. Calling it a genuine friendship wouldn’t be an overstatement.
But this meant there was a danger of the veteran Dutch coach displaying favouritism towards his compatriot.
In an early attempt to make it clear this wouldn’t be the case, Van Gaal sprang a slight surprise by appointing Wayne Rooney - rather than Van Persie - as Manchester United’s permanent captain following the departure of Nemanja Vidic.
Van Gaal also overlooked Van Persie for the vice-captaincy, which went to Darren Fletcher, who was relegated to third-choice skipper last month in favour of Michael Carrick.
There were rumours at the World Cup suggesting Arjen Robben was effectively acting as the Oranje’s captain during the World Cup, rather than Van Persie, and perhaps this was the main reason why Van Gaal felt he wasn’t quite up to that particular job at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal refuses to drop Van Persie
But the captaincy is a side issue. More worryingly, from the perspective of Manchester United fans, is the fact Van Gaal is extremely reluctant to drop Van Persie - regardless of his poor form.
In the opening months of the campaign, the 31-year-old striker was arguably United’s worst player - again, this is no exaggeration or overstatement.
He scored two goals in his first seven Premier League appearances of the season - and not even his last-gasp equaliser against Chelsea on October 26 marked a turnaround in fortunes.
Three goalless performances followed - including two in crunch matches against Manchester City and his former club Arsenal - followed by a better goalscoring run around late-November, early-December.
Poor form has returned
But in the last three matches, the 2013-14 Robin van Persie has returned with a vengeance. That he’s not scoring goals is obviously a concern, but more worrying is the fact he looks off the pace and incapable of producing the same moments of inspiration which led United to lift their 20th league title in his debut season at Old Trafford.
Time for Van Persie to be dropped
There must come a time when Van Gaal acknowledges it is in the best interests of Manchester United to drop Van Persie.
Radamel Falcao would have the opportunity to prove his worth as United’s most advanced forward, while Wayne Rooney would be shifted to his natural position. While he’s capable of playing in a deeper role, the England international - who looks set to become the record goalscorer for both club and country in the near future - is a centre-forward, regardless of what Van Gaal might say in his press conferences.
Juan Mata could continue at No. 10 - the Spaniard simply suffered an off-day against Southampton - with Angel di Maria, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick behind him.
In-form players and a balanced side. Manchester United supporters can at least dream.