Southampton 2 Manchester United 3
There are not many footballers who win a game in injury time with their hat-trick goal and then feel obliged to apologise to their team-mates afterwards, but then there are not many who can hold a candle to the extravagantly gifted Robin van Persie.
The old belief that every brilliant footballer must conquer his flaws as well as his genius was never so evident as in Van Persie's performance, which included a 68th-minute penalty miss, a preposterously self-indulgent "Panenka" saved by Kelvin Davis with Manchester United trailing 2-1. It was Van Persie at his wasteful worst, a bad case of I-dink-therefore-I-am.
The response was breathtaking. He scored in the 87th and 92nd minutes to win the match for his team, break Southampton hearts, and departed the pitch with the match ball in his hands – not before he had stood in front of the United support as they lauded him relentlessly with the kind of fervour a very famous club reserves only for its very best players. It would have been one hell of a game even without Van Persie's injury-time intervention.
Southampton were within a whisker of an incredible victory, having twice taken the lead over United in a game so open and exhilarating that it felt like a cup final. The home team were excellent at times, exploiting the weaknesses of their opponents and coaxing great performances from good players.
It was Sir Alex Ferguson's 1,000th league game in charge of United and he came close to losing it. That it ended with him turning to an opposing manager who had just seen his hopes smashed in the space of five brutal minutes at the end of the game was a fitting way to mark a milestone in a career for Ferguson that has borne witness to much of that sort of thing.
It was difficult not to marvel at Van Persie for the cold-blooded execution of his three goals as well as wondering at the inexplicable instinct which, he admitted himself, took possession of him in the last moment before he hit his penalty.
The Dutchman said that never before had he attempted to dink a penalty, in the manner of Andrea Pirlo in the Euro 2012 shoot-out with England, and like all great thinking footballers, blamed his alter ego.
"I don't know what I was thinking," Van Persie said afterwards. "I wanted to hit it hard like I always do and then in the last second I changed my mind, maybe it was 'my brother' or something. It wasn't good enough. I was a bit down about it immediately afterwards and then I got a bit lucky with the goal for 2-2. In the end it was a very dramatic 3-2...
"I'm very disappointed with the penalty. When that happens at 2-1 down, you can't take a penalty like that. Something went wrong big time."
Even Ferguson was forced to admit that trailing 2-1 with goals from Rickie Lambert in the first half and then Morgan Schneiderlin on 55 minutes, he thought his team were "well out of it". It was shortly after the hour that he sent on Paul Scholes in the place of Tom Cleverley and from then on United had more purpose in midfield, starting with the penalty they won and finally the two winning goals.
"I have to say a big thank you to Paul Scholes," Van Persie said. "Every single pass he hit was the right one and there were a couple of unbelievable passes over 30 to 40 metres. With him you always have to be on your toes because anything can happen. For me, he is the man of the match."
It was not just Scholes' introduction that changed the direction of the game, it was also the Southampton manager Nigel Adkins' decision to substitute Lambert and the captain Adam Lallana in quick succession, starting with Lambert with 16 minutes left, that took the wind out of Saints' sails. United sensed an opponent that were backing off them.
Lallana was excellent going forward despite his defensive struggles to manage the power of Antonio Valencia. Lambert scored the first at the back post having comprehensively outjumped Rafael da Silva to head in Jason Puncheon's cross from the right wing. Schneiderlin scored from another back-post cross, this time from Lambert, after Patrice Evra slipped badly.
Adkins' team cross the ball well but they can also pass the ball too. They could consider themselves unfortunate not to be in the lead at half-time, having conceded when Van Persie brought Valencia's cross down on his chest and Nathaniel Clyne slipped at the crucial moment. It gave the striker enough space for a sight of goal but few could have found the corner quite like him.
At 2-1 there was a ludicrous challenge by Jos Hooiveld on Van Persie in the area that gifted United the penalty that should have got them back into the game. Having missed that, Van Persie did not get another chance until Rio Ferdinand headed against the post and the striker scored the rebound. On 92 minutes he escaped Jose Fonte and glanced a superb header past Davis.
"We put ourselves in a position to win the game and we haven't," Adkins said. "United always finish the game strongly and we didn't see it through."
Cruel place, the Premier League, in which Southampton sit last, the only team on zero points, and this was a cruel reminder of what the big beasts of the division can do to you.
In Ferguson's view, Scholes had "changed the game completely" and he should know. It is just that when a player can scale the heights like Van Persie, in spite of his mistakes, it is difficult to begrudge him the bottle of champagne.
Booked: So'ton Hooiveld.
Man of the match Van Persie.
Match rating 9/10.
Possession: So'ton 45%. Man Utd 55%.
Attempts on target: So'ton 4. Man Utd 7.
Referee M Dean (Cheshire).