Robin van Persie scored twice as Manchester United belied a slipshod performance to win 2-1 at Southampton on Monday and claim third place in the English Premier League.
The Dutchman exploited a blunder by Jose Fonte to put United ahead in the 12th minute at St Mary’s and scored a 71st-minute winner from a Wayne Rooney free-kick after Graziano Pelle had equalized.
United climbed above Southampton and West Ham United into third place, but they were fortunate to emerge with the victory after a lackluster display that also saw them lose centerback Chris Smalling to a leg injury.
Nevertheless, Louis van Gaal’s side have now won five games in succession, which represents a timely burst of momentum ahead of Sunday’s home game with archrivals Liverpool.
Southampton forced United goalkeeper David de Gea into action on several occasions, but having lost to Manchester City and Arsenal in their previous outings it was a third straight defeat for Ronald Koeman’s men.
Southampton created the first chance, Shane Long heading onto the roof of the net from Ryan Bertrand’s hanging cross, but it was United who went ahead thanks to Fonte’s lapse in concentration.
The Portuguese defender, who was making his 200th appearance for Southampton, played a blind back-pass at goalkeeper Fraser Forster and Van Persie nipped in to roll home his fifth goal of the season.
Southampton were quick to react, however, and were helped by the fact that United lost Smalling — the latest in a spate of defensive injuries and which saw Jonny Evans come on for his first appearance since September.
By that stage, Pelle had headed wide from a Steven Davis corner and Southampton continued to press, with De Gea obliged to field a deflected effort from Pelle.
The equalizer duly arrived in the 31st minute after a loose pass from Marouane Fellaini enabled Davis to run at the visitors’ defense. Paddy McNair took the sting out of a shot from Dusan Tadic, but Pelle ghosted in to sweep the ball into the roof of the net for his first goal since October.
McNair had made a jittery start to the game and after his loose touch gifted the ball to Long, who blazed wide, and the 19-year-old was hauled off, with Ander Herrera coming on and Michael Carrick dropping into defense.
Van Persie served a reminder of United’s threat with a shot that curled into the side-netting, but Southampton remained on top in the second half.
De Gea was forced to block when Long met Tadic’s floated cross with a downward header, while Pelle then screwed a shot over the bar from a Tadic pass after Marcos Rojo became the umpteenth United player to lose possession.
However, it was United who struck next. Back in the team after a knee injury, Rooney swung a free-kick toward the back post from deep on the left and Van Persie ghosted in to stab an improvised volley past Forster.
De Gea excelled himself again in the 77th minute, plunging to his left to repel a low shot from Pelle, while fullbacks Nathaniel Clyne and Bertrand each dispatched efforts that narrowly missed the target.
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