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Reinvention or departure? What now for Van Persie at Manchester United?

The striker is fit again after an ankle injury, but Louis Van Gaal’s side have been much improved in his absence and he has just one year left on his contract.

ROBIN VAN PERSIE passed himself fit for the Manchester derby this weekend with a tweet on Wednesday declaring he was “fit and able” to return to action following a seven-week absence with an ankle injury.

But the bigger question for the striker is whether he is fit and able enough to play for Manchester United next season.

Van Persie has watched from the stands as United have clicked into gear without him in recent matches and he is most likely to spend Sunday afternoon keeping Radamel Falcao company on the substitutes’ bench.

Without the Dutchman, Louis Van Gaal’s side have looked better balanced, sharper on and off the ball and more incisive in possession, with Wayne Rooney scoring four goals in his last five Premier League games as the focal point of the attack to put the club on the brink of a top-four finish.

“I think van Gaal has proven this season that he’s not scared to leave big players on the bench,” says former United defender Phil Neville told us recently.

“He left [Angel] Di Maria on the bench, he’s left [Juan] Mata on the bench, he’s left Falcao on the bench. You’ve got to pick your best team and at the moment, that best team is Rooney up front with Fellaini.

So what next? United have shown no signs of offering Van Persie a new contract with his £200,000-a-week deal expiring next summer and that is unlikely to change.

The 31-year-old is a shadow of the player who was so coveted by Sir Alex Ferguson in the Scot’s season and fired United to the title with 26 goals in 38 league matches.

Van Persie’s decline has been obvious with a drastic drop in his goal return offering the clearest indication of his waning powers. His record of a goal every 120.1 minutes in 2012-13 fell to 132 minutes per goal last season and this year he has netted every 199.3 minutes in the Premier League.

That is still only a marginally worse record this season than Rooney (198 minutes per goal) and considerably better than Falcao (258 minutes per goal) – but not good enough for a team that wants to challenge for the title next season.

United will be in the market for a new striker in the summer and, if they continue their new galactico policy, Van Persie is likely to find himself as little more than a bit-part player next term.

It means the 31-year-old will have to check in again with the little boy inside him and decide what he wants to do.

The most likely scenario is that Van Persie stays without a new deal and the club and player make a decision based on how he starts next season.

But despite his huge salary, there are still plenty of Champions League clubs around that would be ready to take a gamble on the former Arsenal captain if he becomes available at the end of the season.

When Van Gaal was appointed last summer, it was assumed that he would make his compatriot top dog at Old Trafford.

After all, the pair had an extremely close relationship. Van Gaal had made the striker his Netherlands captain, they were spotted watching matches together towards the end of last season and Van Persie spoke in glowing terms about the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager’s arrival.

It might have suited Van Persie. He likes to be the main man, with the team built around him. That’s the environment in which he starred at Arsenal and his first season at United when he paid back every penny of his £24 million transfer fee.

Wayne’s world

But Van Gaal opted to make Rooney his captain and Van Persie has, seemingly, struggled to recover from that shock appointment. He has scored a respectable 10 goals in 26 matches in all competitions but, most worryingly, the rest of his game has suffered and appears to be deteriorating at a rapid rate.

He has played as though his knee and ankle problems over the years are now catching up with him, looking off the pace, unable to escape from defenders and too easily bullied off the ball.

Valentine's Day Celebrity Sightings - Manchester Robin van Persie and wife Bouchra Van Persie seen out and about in Manchester recently. Source: Eamonn & James Clarke.

After branding Van Gaal a “bad man” in an interview with Goal this week, Bayern star Franck Ribery added: “His idea was that he did not care about names at all, you don’t need stars, everybody had to prove themselves again.”

Van Persie will know this as well as anyone. He is also not afraid to speak up if he is not happy — he publicly forced a move away from Arsenal and even complained about Ferguson’s rotation policy during his first season at Old Trafford.

When United signed Van Persie in 2012, they did so after the forward had spent much of the summer flirting with rivals Manchester City. Roberto Mancini was so desperate to bring him to the Etihad Stadium that the club even offered to pay for a private helicopter that would regularly fly him between Manchester and his family home in Hamsptead, north London.

Van Persie famously asked the little boy inside him what he should do. It is a question he will have to revisit this summer.

- Greg Stobart

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