It was another astonishing game in the Premier League as Southampton pushed Manchester United all the way at St Mary's before succumbing with just seconds remaining. Rickie Lambert had headed Saints in front from Jason Puncheon's cross in the first half only for Van Persie to punish Nathaniel Clyne's slip to equalise for the visitors.
After the break, Morgan Schneiderlin again put the home side in front and when Van Persie saw his dinked penalty saved by Kelvin Davis it looked like it was Southampton's day. But up popped the former Arsenal forward to redeem himself with two late goals - grabbing all three points and his 100th Premier League goal in the process to ensure Sir Alex Ferguson's 1,000th league game in charge of the Red Devils ended in success.
Nigel Adkins could have been forgiven for making wholesale changes following his side's disappointing defeat at home by Wigan last time out. Instead he resisted the temptation and kept nine of the same team - bravely dropping expensive new acquisition Jay Rodriguez and frontrunner Guly do Prado. Puncheon and James Ward-Prowse came back into the team.
Ferguson sprang a surprise by axing David de Gea and specifically mentioning the Spaniard's mix-up with Nemanja Vidic against Fulham when explaining the decision in the build-up. It was something of a shock given that the young keeper had impressed in the opening game at Everton but the United boss was in unforgiving mood. Rio Ferdinand returned from injury to pair Vidic at the back for the first time in 2012.
Southampton operated with Lambert as a lone frontman but with a number of midfield runners eager to get forward to support. It worked well with Adam Lallana and Puncheon full of energy and getting involved well from wide positions. Lambert himself had some joy pulling onto Rafael to expose the young full-back's lack of height and this reaped dividends for the opening goal. He then turned provider as Saints repeated the trick when Schneiderlin exposed Patrice Evra after the break. As Ferguson observed after the game: "Everything we did in preparation for the game has all been to deal with back-post crosses and they scored two goals off them."
Ferguson matched up against Southampton with Danny Welbeck cutting in from the left to support Van Persie. The idea appeared to be to have fluidity with some interchanging of positions between Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa but it wasn't a complete success and United had more joy late on when the introduction of Nani and Chicharito saw the away side switch to a 4-4-2 system.
Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier was frustrated by Adkins' decision to withdraw his three star turns in this game - Lambert, Lallana and Puncheon - with the scoreline at 2-1. While it's true that they had been Saints' best performers there was some method to the thinking as United pressed forward. The home side needed energy on the flanks to help double up on the marauding wingers and with Adkins' men reduced to fleeting counter-attacks they needed more pace up front. As it turned out, the move backfired and the manager ended up looking foolish.
It was a different story for Ferguson as all of his changes worked well. Nani provided the delivery for the injury-time winner but the United boss highlighted the contribution of his other substitutes - Chicharito and Paul Scholes as the key changes. "We were well out of it until Paul Scholes came on the park," he explained. "His vision and consistency of passing gave us complete control of the game. I think Chicharito made a difference too. He started stretching them and making fantastic runs off the ball. I was delighted with his performance."
The only time Mike Dean was under the spotlight at St Mary's was when Hooiveld went through the back of Van Persie and the referee pointed to the spot. The home crowd were unimpressed but it was a foolish decision for an experienced professional to make as the striker had his back to goal. Other than that and a few howls for a push by Ferdinand at the death, it was a free-flowing game for Dean to deal with.
Southampton have now led against Manchester City and Manchester United going into the latter stages and yet after three games they are the only Premier League side without a point. With Arsenal up next, the South Coast side are facing a steep learning curve but have shown enough promise to come through this challenge as better players if they can stick together. With new signing Gaston Ramirez to bolster them, there is every reason to think that there are brighter times ahead for the newly-promoted side.
United have made a stuttering start to their campaign but have still managed to pick up six points from three games and Ferguson will be relieved that they have reached the international break with that points tally. With Ferdinand and Vidic together again at the back, he will be hoping United's defensive problems are over and, with Van Persie showing what he is capable of at the other end, this could prove a crucial win at the end of the season.