Arsenal and Manchester United great Robin van Persie makes his UEFA Europa League semi-final predictions.
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Robin van Persie won the 2001/02 UEFA Cup with Feyenoord in his first season as a senior professional. He went on to enjoy great success with Arsenal, Manchester United and Fenerbahçe, but that 2-1 triumph against Borussia Dortmund in Rotterdam was the catalyst for it all – an incredible achievement for an 18-year-old Van Persie, the memories of which have barely faded.
"I played a little over an hour in that final and then half an hour later, I was standing there as an 18-year-old kid with a trophy in my hands," he tells UEFA.com with a smile. "I was just there to play and have fun. I was living in a bubble, so I didn’t really realise how big it was at that moment in time. Now, I do. It’s a fantastic trophy to win, especially when you’re 18 years old."
Now 37, the Dutch striker is coming to the end of the first full season since he hung up his boots, and was happy to share his thoughts about the upcoming UEFA Europa League semi-finals.
On Sevilla v Man United ...
Sevilla have a very strong team. They’re true cup fighters; they won the Europa League three times in a row, so they’re going to be a tough team to beat for Manchester United.
Ole [Gunnar Solskjær]'s behind the wheel again, getting United going. Every coach always chooses his main guys, and even though Mason Greenwood is only 18 years old, he’s one of them. The manager gave him that confidence; he gave it to Anthony Martial, he gave it to Marcus Rashford, he gave it to Paul Pogba, and he gave it to Bruno Fernandes, and these guys are leading by example. They're blossoming with the confidence they get from the coach. That suddenly makes them contenders, in the Europa League but in the Premier League as well in the near future. And it mostly comes down [to when] Bruno Fernandes arrived.
He is like the engine of the team. You can see that Pogba likes to play with him, because Paul Pogba recognises a world-class player. So now they can boss games. The front three players, they're on their toes, because that final, killer ball can always come, from Bruno or from Pogba. [In terms of] world-class midfielders, Pogba was alone [before Bruno Fernandes arrived], and now he’s not, which makes the whole team tick better.
Van Persie’s verdict: Manchester United 3-2 Sevilla
Sevilla are playing so well – so silky, technical. Manchester United: they’re in a very good shape now. They look fit, they look strong, they look ready. I would go for Manchester United, but Sevilla are a very, very good team, so a very close one.
On Inter v Shakhtar ...
Inter have always been a big club, but not always in the way they are now. Since [Antonio] Conte arrived, he’s brought structure and it’s clear how he wants them to play. I speak to Stefan De Vrij, and he told me about his first pre-season at Inter – he was like: ‘Wow Robin: it’s so tough, but I’m so fit now.’ And he told me that the coach is very clear in how he wants the team to play in every single position. And he wants his team to be super, super fit. So it’s mainly down to him.
They've had great players for many, many years, but now, they really act like a team. [Romelu] Lukaku has been doing so well in the league as well as in the Europa League. He got his confidence back and I can clearly see that the team and the coach are connected and they are doing that really well.
Shakhtar are quite a sensational team in transitions with some brilliant ball players like Taison and Júnior Moraes. I played against them with Arsenal, Manchester United and in the Champions League play-offs with Fenerbahçe. They’re mentally very strong, and it doesn’t really matter if they aren't playing in front of their own crowd. Whatever the situation, they just crack on with what they do best, and that's playing really good football.
Van Persie's verdict: Inter 2-1 Shakhtar
Inter are doing very well – very good coach, very good players; they’re winning, but Shakhtar… It’s difficult to say, but based on my games against them, I would not write them off because these guys play no matter what – in front home fans or not. So, tricky, but I would go for Inter in this one.