LONDON: Robin Van Persie, according to Roberto Mancini, is the man who has made all the difference thus far in the Premier League title race writes KEIR RADNEDGE.

Manchester City’s manager said last weekend that if the Dutchman had preferred his own club’s offer last summer, rather than that of neighbours United, then the placings would be reversed.

Van Persie underlined his importance on New Year’s Day with two of United’s goals in a 4:0 win at Wigan achieved despite the absence, through knee trouble, of striking partner Wayne Rooney.

That victory maintained United’s seven-point lead over City and took Van Persie to a Premier League top-scoring 16 goals. But there are other reasons for United’s command of the Premier League as the English game becomes even more busy with the advent, this coming weekend, of the third round of the FA Cup.

United had few problems overcoming Wigan. Mexican striker Javier Hernandez, standing in for Rooney, also had a goal disallowed before making the breakthrough after 35 minutes at the DW Stadium. Van Persie doubled United’s lead in the 43rd minute and it was the Dutchman’s free-kick that ballooned up to present Hernandez with his second goal in the 63rd.

The Mexican striker’s volley ended Wigan’s hopes of any reward and Van Persie fired a late fourth as United passed the 50-point mark, taking their haul to 52 from 21 games this season.

The victory completed an impressive 10-point haul for United from their four festive games and they even managed to keep a second consecutive clean sheet. Ferguson was so pleased he even had time to joke, superstitiously, with the media: “Don’t mention that in your reports: don’t tell anybody.”

Defensive frailties

United had conceded 28 goals by the 19-game half-way stage which is only five goals fewer than they did for the entirety of last season. This remains a danger sign compared with the far tighter defensive records of main pursuers Manchester City (conceded 19) and Chelsea (18 before last night) and all the rest of the entire top half of the table.

Ferguson’s men have coped with their defensive frailties with a remarkable spirit and confidence in their ability to hit back from being or even two goals down.

On nine occasions this season United have fallen behind, going on to win eight of those matches. Hence United have reaped 24 out of their 52 points from losing positions and without that strength of character they United would be struggling – comparatively – in mid-table.

What is their comeback secret?

Old ‘pupils’ have credited Ferguson’s ability to instil in all his teams down the years a belief that it is their destiny to win every game. Opposition teams all suffer psychologically from the knowledge that a United goal is only a few minutes away.

Former United striker Teddy Sheringham once said: “There is no finer sight in football, than Manchester United chasing down a lead.”

This season, in particular.