Van Persie out with points to prove amid his Fenerbahce frustrations – but not from his usual position
Robin van Persie felt the cut-throat ruthlessness of Louis van Gaal when he was forced out of Manchester United in the summer of 2015.
Yet it wasn’t so long ago that he was the prince of Manchester – the (formerly) prolific striker played a key role in United becoming the first English side to win 20 league titles, and scored 58 times in 105 games to earn a prominent place in the club’s annals.
The Dutchman’s thunderous over-the-shoulder volley against Aston Villa at Old Trafford in April 2013 was recently voted as the best Premier League goal by players in the ‘100 Club’ – the elite group who have scored at least a century of goals in the league.
Van Persie’s exit in summer 2015 – perhaps not surprising at that point, amid a new era of United spending – came via his move to Turkey with Fenerbahce.
In Turkey, football really is more than a game; most of its biggest clubs have a history older than the Turkish Republic itself
He became the latest in a growing line of Dutch stars to join the Turkish Super Lig, following in the footsteps of Dirk Kuyt and Wesley Sneijder. There were accusations of the experienced striker selling out for the money, but in reality he wasn’t making significantly more than he did at the Red Devils. He was approaching his 32nd birthday and, potentially, fulfilling one final career move.
Besides, Van Persie wasn’t after financial gain but something altogether more difficult to attain – Turkish football’s lure of becoming a genuine superstar (as Darius Vassell will attest).
The Dutchman was undoubtedly popular in England (save for among Arsenal fans circa 2012-present). He sold the highest number of shirts in the league back in 2012/13, his first (26-goal) season at United. Generally in England, when a player joins a new club, he is greeted by club directors and given a replica shirt to pose with. Southern European countries tend to go the extra mile with unveiling ceremonies at the stadium.
All pale in comparison to the fanfare Van Persie received in Turkey, though, when thousands of fans filled Istanbul's Sabiha Gokcen Airport grounds lighting flares, singing chants and waving club fans hours before he'd even arrived in the city.
In Turkey, football really is more than a game; most of its biggest clubs have a history older than the Turkish Republic itself. Take Fenerbahce for example: the club was founded in 1907 during the Ottoman era and takes great pride in its role facilitating the movement of arms and supply of men during the War of Independence – paving the way for the foundation of modern Turkey.
Thus, Van Persie arrived a hero and even Fenerbahce’s rivals were excited to see him playing in the league. But former head coach Vitor Pereira had other plans. His experienced striker was forced to fight for his place in the team, and the Portuguese coach was perceived to have made an example of him as a show of strength.
Van Persie, now 33, hasn’t found playing time easy to come by in Turkey. He endured a few injuries over the course of last season but Pereira would even drop him when match fit, despite the wrath of Fenerbahce fans.
On paper Pereira had a point, though. He wasn’t the only manager to drop the player either – Van Persie hasn’t featured for Holland since scoring an own goal in their disastrous 3-2 Euro 2016 qualifying defeat by the Czech Republic – and as manager it was the Portuguese’s decision to pick his own team. He wasn’t going to to field a player purely because he was a fan favourite.
But Pereira underestimated Fenerbahce’s fan culture, and the influence of the club’s supporters groups. It wasn’t long before the main ultra groups were calling for his head and demanding he played their star man. Perreira was stubborn and continued doing things his way, though by the season’s end 20 of Van Persie’s 31 league appearances had been starts.
When Fenerbahce failed to win the league last season, and didn’t secure a place in the Champions League after losing to Monaco in the play-offs, the pressure was unbearable. The board acted: Pereira was gone just a week before the end of the transfer window.
Despite struggling to lock down a consistent first-team place, Van Persie still managed to score an impressive 22 goals in all competitions last season. Pereira was replaced by fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat, but while Van Persie has moved up the pecking order he's yet to get into the swing of things and has been disrupted by a minor injury. He's back now, though, and almost certain to start against his former club in the Europa League.
Robin at 10
Considering the ever-growing Yellow Canaries injury list, Van Persie could actually feature as a No.10 charged with pulling the strings in attack. Fenerbahce will be without star midfielder Ozan Tufan and creative brightspark Salih Ucan, while in-form winger Jeremain Lens and striker Moussa Sow are both doubts.
Advocaat is likely to play Emmanuel Emenike up front, as the former West Ham loanee will offer more of a threat on the break than Van Persie with his pace and power. Volkan Sen will return on the wing after a lengthy suspension, and former Chelsea youth Miroslav Stoch could find himself on the other flank.
Mehmet Topal and Josef de Souza – both defensively-minded midfielders – are likely to sit in front of the backline, as two of the most effective players in Fenerbahce’s team. Neither is the type of player to unlock opposition defences, though, and Fenerbahce’s problem is that they don’t currently have a fit midfielder with the creativity to pick apart a well-organised opponent.
That’s why Van Persie could feel the weight of creative responsibility on his shoulders. The Dutchman is a fine finisher but he's also a technically gifted and intelligent player who could be the key to opening up a United defence which can be very difficult to play against – as free-scoring Liverpool found out on Monday.
It remains to be seen just how seriously United will take the Europa League this season, having suffered a shock defeat at Feyenoord and scraped a win against Zorya. Fenerbahce head into the third matchday as Group A leaders and have beaten United at Old Trafford in the past, courtesy of a 1-0 win in the 1996/97 Champions League (though they still fell short in the group stage).
Van Persie will be keen to help pull off a similar heist. He has yet to really repay his devoted followers on the pitch, but that could all change on Thursday night.