As the manager who harnessed Henrik Larsson in his pomp when in charge of Celtic, Martin O'Neill knows the potency of a talisman. Sunderland's manager looks at Manchester United's Robin van Persie and sees a force with an impact similar to that of Lionel Messi for Barcelona.
The Dutchman is flying in his debut United season, the go-to man who turns matches for Sir Alex Ferguson. "That's the nature of the game and you can boil it down to an awful lot of things," O'Neill said. "Would, for instance, Barcelona have the same effect if Lionel Messi didn't play? The number of goals he has scored is incredible [86 in 2012]. They are a very talented team, but without him, you don't know because Messi is their talisman."
O'Neill, Celtic's most successful manager since Jock Stein, took the Glasgow club to the 2003 Uefa Cup final where Larsson scored twice in the 3-2 defeat by José Mourinho's Porto. Asked if the Van Persie influence on United, whose opener against Sunderland was a 12th Premier League goal since joining, is the same as Larsson's was for Celtic, O'Neill said: "Absolutely. United have paid close on £30m for a player [£24m] who had just one year left on his contract, so that might tell you how valuable they perceive him. But it's not just the perception, the reality is that he has been fantastic."
Van Persie followed his goal by creating United's third and Wayne Rooney's fifth in his last three league outings. This came on 59 minutes – Ashley Young over-hit a pass to the 29-year-old but as Carlos Cuéllar and Titus Bramble advanced in a pincer movement, they were left flailing as a fleet-footed Van Persie zipped forward, then fed Rooney, who slid home easily.
O'Neill said: "Honestly, he [Van Persie] can get goals out of very little. It looks like nothing is happening, you have players there in the area, but all of a sudden, he has opened up a gap. Just look at the third goal. We would say we didn't defend brilliantly, but he would say it was great play, fantastic play, and you always felt that United would give themselves a big edge by getting Van Persie.
"That's not to say that Tevez and Agüero [of Manchester City] are not great players because they are, but this extra boost that United got in pre-season would have been psychologically massive."
Van Persie has scored 15 times in all competitions for his new club and his partnership with Rooney is blossoming. O'Neill added: "The two of them are linking up and keeping some excellent players out of the team. No matter how many times you think you have covered the space, those players can do something with the ball."
Ferguson's men maintain their six-point lead over City, who won 3-1 at Newcastle United, and O'Neill believes Van Persie could be the X-factor in this season's title race. "We are making judgments before Christmas, but if he stays fit that will make a massive difference to United's challenge," he said.
Rooney continues to revel in a deeper role, running this contest until Sunderland's late resurgence, alongside Michael Carrick before he was withdrawn at half‑time due to a hamstring problem.
Rooney's display featured him drifting into the shifting midfield corridors that are tricky for defenders to discern, and it included a crossfield ball that hummed at a ferocious velocity while rising no higher than six feet. "That's difficult of course," O'Neill said, of trying to contain the Liverpudlian. "This isn't something that has just happened recently, where teams play deep-lying forwards who can play like a marauding midfield player. They come at you and cause you problems. They have the ability to take players on or split the defence with a pass."
Tom Cleverley's second for United arrived after 19 minutes, while Fraizer Campbell, on as a second-half substitute, profited from the home side's lax defending in the closing half-hour to head a consolation.
For United, Nemanja Vidic made a heartening 67th-minute appearance as a replacement following his knee injury, while Rafael da Silva was not in the squad due to a hamstring issue.
Of Adam Johnson, who again disappointed for Sunderland before being withdrawn for Campbell, O'Neill said: "He had a dead leg on Tuesday and declared himself fit, but I don't think, deep down, he was properly fit. He is making improvements, though, and there have been signs in recent games that he is getting to the form that saw Manchester City sign him and play him. At City, he was coming on with 25 minutes left to play and having little cameo roles. With us, he is having to start the games with a lot of added pressure, naturally."
Man of the match Robin van Persie