By Trevor Haylett
Robin van Persie knew he faced a difficult task to break into the first team at Arsenal FC following his move from Feyenoord last year but until he stepped into the famous marble halls for the first time he did not realise just how much competition there was from a host of young starlets.
Scoring the winning goal in Arsenal's tense 2-1 FA Cup defeat of Stoke City FC will have done his cause no harm, but the 21-year-old is well aware that his desire for first-team football is no more, no less, than that of all the other freshmen Arsène Wenger has assembled at Highbury.
Competition remains fierce for places. Even with Edu and Gilberto injured, Patrick Vieira suspended and Fredrik Ljungberg falling victim to a migraine attack, Van Persie could not break into the first XI for Arsenal's final UEFA Champions League Group E fixture at home against Rosenborg BK.
Instead it was the 17-year-old Spaniard Cesc Fabregas and Frenchman Matthieu Flamini, 20, who filled the central midfield vacancies. Van Persie had to make do with a place on the bench from where he emerged late on to strike the final goal in a 5-1 victory.
However, he missed from two other opportunities. "I was disappointed because I wanted to score at least two goals which is strange because I was only on for 15 minutes but they were three good chances and I should have done better," Van Persie said afterwards.
While Van Persie is locked in fierce competition with many of his team-mates, he has nothing but praise for Fabregas and Flamini. "Fabregas is a fantastic guy, he is only 17 and every week he turns in a top-class performance," he said. "Flamini is the same, the young players at Arsenal all have outstanding ability.
"When I was at Feyenoord the reserve team there was made up of very good players but at Arsenal they are at another level. The Feyenoord youngsters were a little bit bigger but for technique the Arsenal players are the best."
The Rotterdam-born player was initially used sparingly following his arrival at Highbury in the summer, but he accepts his situation. "It's new for me as I was used to playing all the time in Holland," he said. "But I know that this is good for me in the end and I've really enjoyed the months that I've been here."
'My time will come'
However, with substitute and first-team appearances coming more frequently, things are improving. "It's an ongoing battle to try and get in the team and I have to be patient," he said. "Hopefully my time will come. I have confidence in myself and confidence in the club - Arsenal are the best club in the world."
Having the raw talent is one thing, providing the right environment to make sure it flourishes and the young prodigies achieve their potential is another matter. Van Persie says the Arsenal secret lies in the respect that is afforded every single player - from young hopefuls to international superstars.
"The respect is different at Arsenal," he said. "It is the key word. Everybody has respect for one another. Whether it's Patrick Vieira dealing with Thierry Henry or with me the respect is the same.
Everyone is nice to each other, it's like one big family and it has been like that since the first day I arrived."
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