20. On 22nd April, Manchester United clinched their twentieth league title, due to the efforts of their own number 20, in the form of Robin Van Persie, who scored a hat trick on the night that saw his side crowned Champions.
After Manchester City’s loss to Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend, many saw the title race as all but concluded, with United simply needing victory against an Aston Villa side battling to maintain their Premier League status. Regardless, there was still some tension to be felt as the final moments to kick off counted down, with the hope Sir Alex Ferguson’s men would get the job done and put an end to what was left of the title race.
For the game at Old Trafford, David De Gea started in goal, with Phil Jones and Jonny Evans the chosen centre back pairing. On the right stood Rafael and on the left, Patrice Evra. The midfield was made up of Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Shinji Kagawa and Antonio Valencia. Wayne Rooney sat just behind Robin Van Persie up front.
The game kicked off and United started brightly. In fact, it could be said they got the perfect start, as any thought of nerves or tentative play was immediately cast aside when Wayne Rooney picked out a marginally offside Valencia out wide, the winger charging down before passing back to Rafael. The young defender then whipped in a high cross that found Giggs at the far post, who knocked the ball back across for Van Persie to fire home from close range, giving United a 1-0 lead.
It signalled an open start to the game with Villa also showing their attacking intent getting forward. Benteke had a golden chance to bring the scores level soon after, but his shot went over the bar after being set up by Weimann. Merely a minute earlier, Rafael fired from distance, his low shot came crashing off the bar.
WIthin a quarter of an hour, though, it was 2-0. Wayne Rooney played a brilliant pin point pass to find Van Persie on the left, the Dutchman firing first time with deadly accuracy in what was a goal of sheer class that sent the home fans into raptures. 20 minutes later, and United made it 3. Kagawa played in Giggs on the left, the Welshman going at goal before playing to Van Persie, who took a step to beat the goalkeeper and score with defenders trying to block him. 3-0 to Manchester United and the title less than an hour away.
Half time came and went, as United kicked off the second half with little sign of slowing down. However, it was the visitors who would come close to getting a goal this time and United’s hat trick hero would be doing the defending as a corner won after a mistake by De Gea, found Weimann who headed at goal, beating a diving goalkeeper by cleared off the line by Van Persie. Benteke forced De Gea into a save soon after as well as United started to take their foot off the pedal.
With a relaxed atmosphere taking shape at Old Trafford, Sir Alex brought off the effective Rooney, replacing him with Welbeck with 20 minutes to go. Soon after, El Ahmadi went close to bringing a goal back, his header tipped over by De Gea. Immediately after, United had a golden chance to go 4 up, Valencia finding Kagawa in the box, but the Japanese midfielder missed badly from merely yards out.
As the clock counted down the minutes, the crowd were in a celebratory mood, cheering every touch and waiting for the moment their side would be crowned Champions. Scenes of jubilation were sparked as the whistle blew, with United seeing off a battling Villa 3-0, to take title number 20 in emphatic style. As the players celebrated with the fans, attention will undoubtedly turn to next week, the pressure off but a big game in store against Arsenal.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
After 5 months at the top of the table, a season that started a little shakily and yet a consistent run of results, often with United fighting back from behind, a twentieth league title has been won, less than a year after the dramatic final day of last season. There will always be debate about how this side ranks compared to others, the young talent emerging within the side and how they will progress from here. But for now, United fans all over will be celebrating a title winning game that was won in some style. Champions with games to spare. Congratulations Manchester United, congratulations Sir Alex Ferguson for yet another success.
2) Villa battled hard
One thing that ought to be pointed out is that Villa were better than the scoreline suggests. In what was an open game at times, they had their chances and looked to get forward. They came close to score a few times and could well have given United some cause for concern. Indeed, with a few games remaining and a fight for survival on their hands, Lambert’s side will give themselves a good chance of staying up approaching the next matches positively.
The difference , though, was United’s flying start, and how clinical they were in front of goal. As well as defending fairly well, passing was slick, finding their man and allowing them to get forward with pace, and scoring within the first couple of minutes took a lot of the pressure off for the side, meaning that as the game went on, it was almost exhibition-like. The true highlight of the night was the second goal in what was an entertaining game, with an electric atmosphere with an air of expectation.
3) Van Persie – the drought emphatically behind him
Various players have played their part in United’s campaign to regain the title this season. De Gea has had big moments in goal, the likes of Jones and Evans have stepped up in the absence of Vidic, Ferdinand has been a beacon of experience and Carrick has been seeing more of the plaudits that he has been due. However, one might struggle to argue with the impact that Van Persie has had at the club. As United closed in on the title, he went a bit quiet on the goalscoring front, but on Monday night, he put that behind him in style as he scored a hat trick to help seal the championship.
His goals were all a part of excellent team work going forward with the likes of Kagawa, Giggs, Valencia and Rafael all playing a part, but the second goal in particular was a sensational finish with a first time shot that was a display of confidence that some thought was missing a few games ago.
A brilliant signing, that lived up to the billing in his first season at the club.
4) Valencia looking like his old self
After the final whistle went, and the players celebrated with the fans, many noted that Valencia had done something that had not been seen in months: Smile. It followed the Ecuadorian’s most effective game in a while, one in which he was charging down the right wing, connecting well with Rafael to produce a constant threat out wide. He looked confident, played accurate passes and crosses and exerted an influence on the game. Was he the best on the night? No, but it was significant to see the winger perform the way he did, a sign that he may be on the way back to being as good as he can be.
5) Phil Jones “could be the best ever”
In the post match interview Sir Alex Ferguson suggested the young Jones could be the best player ever at the club. For such a young defender, following in the footsteps up true world class talent at the club, that is a huge statement of the belief in his talent and what he is capable of. When fit, he has performed well when moved around various positions. On Monday, back in his favoured centre back position, he was solid at the back, partnered with Evans and provided a stable presence that helped United add another clean sheet to the tally. How he progresses will be interesting in the next few seasons, but one cannot help but feel expectation has been taken up a notch with such claims being made.
Finally, with a few games left in the season it will be interesting to see how Sir Alex makes his selections for the final games. With Arsenal and Chelsea still to play, he will no doubt be preparing them fully for these games, intent on taking a record points haul to end the season. Some may be given a chance to impress as the season ends, or the established order may continue to start. Either way, the pressure will be off and the side may choose to play more expressively in the knowledge that it will not harm them.