Captain fantastic - Robin van Persie reinforces leadership skills to haul Arsenal back from precipice & quieten the boo boys
Dutch master leads from the front with two emphatic penalties on an uplifting afternoon in which he inspired team-mates on and off the pitch
Whether or not Arsene Wenger pointed a revolver at his players’ heads at half-time, without the ammunition provided by Robin van Persie there would have been no epic second-half comeback on another madcap afternoon at Arsenal.
Captain fantastic showed great composure to slot away two penalties, one in each corner of Shay Given’s net, to start and complete his team’s revival and haul them back from the FA Cup precipice.
But there was more to the flying Dutchman’s work than steely nerve and unerring accuracy from 12 yards. He was also a source of inspiration both on the pitch and away from the TV cameras and the eyes of Arsenal’s increasingly impatient supporters.
Revealingly, Theo Walcott said afterwards that Van Persie played an important role in lifting the players’ morale during the 15-minute recess, reminding them not only how victory was still within their grasp but how significant a passage to the fifth round of the Cup could be to the team’s rollercoaster season.
In the second half, the No.10 threw himself into the task of changing the outcome of the result, as well as the restless atmosphere in N5. He snapped at the heels of his opponents, linked cleverly with Arsenal’s midfield runners and moved Villa’s shell-shocked defenders out of position.
It appeared to be Van Persie’s personal mission to exorcise the gloom generated by three league defeats on the spin, not to mention the trophy drought that, in defining matches, acts like a lead weight around the shoulders of the players.
The player who was rested from the third round triumph over Leeds United behaved like stage two of the old competition was the most important encounter of the season. He visibly encouraged his team-mates, leading by both word and deed. When he scored the third goal, he leaped into the arms of his manager.
Arsenal’s pain has become Van Persie’s pain. Their joy has become his joy. He cares. Deeply. The rebellious but extravagantly gifted youngster who spent his early years at Arsenal picking as many fights as he accumulated injuries has become the heartbeat and standard-bearer of the team.
The armband is not just a symbol of his seniority or superior talent. He considers it a responsibility, something to be cherished and a force for fostering good. For him, the Arsenal captaincy is not an ego trip or a vehicle for enhanced commercial exposure.
There used to be a sense among the coaching staff that Van Persie played too much for himself. Yes, he was capable of the most ridiculous pieces of skill, but there were too many attempts at scene-stealing moments.
Not anymore. He has matured into the consummate centre-forward who, not only scores goals for fun, but can play with his head up or his back to goal. His touch is velcro, the movement slippery and he can score all types of goals – right foot, in the air, inside the six-yard box, from distance and all angles. The left foot, of course, is capable of both murderous power and the most delicate precision.
Van Persie’s two second-half penalties against Villa took his haul for the season to 25 goals in 29 Arsenal games, which would be an astounding record for a pure predator never mind one who is a creator as well as a finisher of goals. In the process, he took his tally for the club to 120, joining another Dutch master, Dennis Bergkamp.
The mysterious injuries have dried up, too. Whether it is because of a more individualistic training regime or a better knowledge of his own explosive skills, Van Persie has stayed fit for over 12 months.
The 28-year-old has always been an opinionated and outspoken figure in the dressing room. He is Dutch, after all.
But, with the greying of the temples has come greater wisdom. His colleagues have responded this season to his spirit and passion since he replaced Cesc Fabregas as skipper. The dressing room is said to be a happier and less factionalised place.
Van Persie has taken responsibility for organising team get-togethers, while his wife Bouchra is said to be conduit for many of the social activities of the Arsenal WAGS.
Yet the elephant in the room is the future of the captain and talisman. He turns 29 in August, when he will have entered the final year of his contract, and has made it clear to the club that he will not discuss new terms until the end of the season.
Van Persie had a strong negotiating position when he made that decision last September. He holds all the aces now.
The player’s representatives are all too well aware that he can double his money at one of Europe’s biggest spenders, never mind increase his chances of having some silverware to polish.
Yet Van Persie’s commitment to adding to a solitary FA Cup medal in 2005 remains total. There is no sense of him taking his foot off the pedal or saving himself for another employer, as others have done before him, both at Arsenal and elsewhere.
You sense his burning desire to turn the last seven years into something more tangible than a place in the Champions League draw, however significant that is to the club’s bean-counters.
Van Persie wants glory and has the armoury to achieve it. On an uplifting afternoon, he proved he has the capacity to inspire the deeds of others, too.
Chelsea captain John Terry out of Swansea match with knee injury
England skipper has been suffering from fluid in the knee sustained against Portsmouth when he collided with the goal post, but should be back for game against Manchester United
Chelsea captain John Terry will miss the club's Premier League clash with Swansea City because of a knee injury he picked up in the third round of the FA Cup against Portsmouth.
The England international has fluid in his knee joint after colliding with the goal post while clearing the ball off the line, and despite playing through the pain in recent weeks he will now miss the game against Premier League newcomers Swansea.
"It's just a bone oedema that he has been carrying for some time since he collided with a post, and this stops him a little bit," Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas told Chelsea TV.
"It's nothing serious but something to keep an eye on. He has had an MRI before and he should be okay for [Sunday's game against] Man United."
The news creates an opportunity for new signing Gary Cahill to make his first appearance for the club since his £7 million move to Stamford Bridge from Bolton.
"We have a lot of positions covered of course because of our squad, we have Gary [Cahill] and David [Luiz] available and competing and hopefully we can make the right decision."
Villas-Boas also spoke of other absentees, including Frank Lampard, John Ob-Mikel and Ramires, who suffered medial ligament damage during Saturday's 1-0 victory over QPR in the FA Cup.
"It's unfortunate for the team; 'Rami' is one of the most used players of the team with excellent individual performances and always helping the team to get results," Villas-Boas said.
"With what could have happened, it's just good news that he will be out for a short amount of time. Hopefully he will be available for the Napoli game, and hopefully before.
"On another front, Mikel will be out of the game and 'Lamps' still out. Frank's rehabilitation is going well, we are trying to reintroduce him gradually to the first-team activities.
"Frank felt that it was still a little bit soon to come back and went on to work with the physios, so hopefully after Swansea we will get him ready for the Man United game."