The Dutch striker had missed the chance to equalise with his club 2-1 down as he fluffed his line from the penalty spot with 20 minutes left but made amend with the clock ticking down as he converted Nani’s corner with a brilliant header to send the United end berserk.
While Fergie will celebrate a win in his 1000th league game in charge of United, Nigel Adkins and Southampton will feel hard done by as they were three minutes away to claim a famous victory – their first since their return to the top-flight.
The Premier League new boys twice went ahead through headers from Rickie Lambert and Morgan Schneiderlin but had to surrender to RVP’s brilliance which only partly masked United’s awful day at the office in midfield and the desperate need for a replacement for Patrice Evra.
On the day he reached another milestone in his United career Fergie opted to drop David De Gea in favour of Anders Lindegaard with Rio Ferdinand making an unexpected return in the heart of United’s back four alongside Nemanja Vidic – the first time they took the field together since December 2011 – Rafael and Evra.
Following his spells at centre-back against Everton and Fulham, Michael Carrick regained his usual spot in midfield – flanked by Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley – with Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia deployed out wide in support of Robin Van Persie.
Despite Welbeck’s clear adversity at being played on the flank, United had the better of the home side in the opening exchanges but the feel good vibe lasted for just 15 minutes as Rickie Lambert headed Southampton in front.
United’s midfield lacked tempo and Kagawa was easily dispossessed before Evra continued his habit of allowing his opponent too much space on the ball as Puncheon delivered a brilliant ball for Lambert who climbed over Rafael to give the hosts the lead.
United were back on level terms after eight minutes, Valencia’s cross finding RVP at the back post as the Dutchman expertly pulled away, seizing on Clyne’s slip to make it 1-1.
Despite being static and way off the tempo in midfield United had the best chance before halftime as Evra smashed his header into the ground and onto Saints’ keeper Kelvin Davis.
The second half started with Van Persie missing a simple finish following a clever pass from Valencia before the Saints were back in front.
United’s midfield and defence confirmed all of their flaws after 55 minutes as Patrice Evra lost his balance, opening the door for Morgan Schneiderlin to head Rickie Lambert’s brilliantly delivered ball past Lindegaard.
With the home side having all of the momentum, Fergie replaced Cleverley with Scholes and Kagawa with Nani – nevertheless the Japanese confirmed himself as player of potential paramount importance for his side – but United’s hopes of a comeback were given a blow after 69 minutes as Robin Van Persie’s chipped penalty was palmed away by Kelvin Davis.
Javier Hernandez replaced Danny Welbeck as United looked set to throw the kitchen sink at the host, despite being clearly short of ideas – the ones that laughed off the necessity to reinforce a midfielder will have time to meditate – but were saved by the man that had momentarily turned villain.
With three minutes left Ferdinand was left unmarked in the box and headed Valencia’s cross onto the post before RVP tapped the rebound home silencing the St Mary’s.
The silence turned into despair when, three minutes later, the former Arsenal front man headed Nani’s corner past Kenny to give United and undeserved, yet important, win.
individual brilliance can’t mask lacklustre performances over 38 games, but it can well be the difference between a defeat and a win as United found out today.
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