By Omar Soliman at 4:00 pm 23/05/2013
By Omar Soliman at 4:00 pm 23/05/2013
That’s that then, Manchester United have got their trophy back. After the snatch and grab finale of the last campaign, winning the title was seen as imperative and it has been won at an emphatic canter. Consistency has been key yet, as with every season, there have been defining moments along the way. Here is my top ten of them.
Arguably the crucial moment of the season occurred just before it began. Few thought the transfer of Robin van Persie could be pulled off under the noses of the new champions and a seemingly irresistible wage packet from Juventus. Yet here he was before our very eyes at a press conference sat alongside a rather smug looking Sir Alex Ferguson. Whilst many were clamouring for midfield reinforcements (and still are) the crucial piece of the jigsaw was van Persie. 26 league goals later and that £1.5m bonus to be paid back to Arsenal suddenly looks like a bargain.
The season began with defeat at Goodison Park and while no-one was pressing the panic button after falling behind to Fulham the finger was hovering. Step forward the new #20 and with a swipe of his trusted left foot United were level, the Dutchman was off the mark and he had fully introduced himself to the Old Trafford faithful.
By September, United had made a bad habit of of conceding first and Anfield went straight to the form book with Steven Gerrard putting Liverpool in front only for Rafael to equalise deliciously. With ten minutes left and the hosts down to ten men, a loose ball dropped in midfield. Neither Glen Johnson nor Daniel Agger were necessarily slow to the ball but Antonio Valencia hit the gas and a few seconds later was bundled over for a penalty that van Persie duly converted for another comeback win.
With the European champions four points ahead, the clash at Stamford Bridge was billed as an early six-pointer and did not disappoint. United swept into a two-goal lead through a Luiz own goal and another van Persie strike only for Chelsea to level through an exquisite Juan Mata free-kick and a Ramires header.
A home win looked on the cards until a couple of favourable officiating decisions went United’s way. Ivanovic’s sending off seemed just and Torres’ was baffling yet the most dramatic part was to come with fifteen minutes remaining. With the game stretched, Javier Hernandez was introduced to exploit space yet even then he could not get himself onside when converting Rafael’s errant cross/shot. Replays confirmed he was a yard offside though few in the red corner were grumbling.
For someone who has seemingly played a bit-part in the league campaign, Hernandez has popped up to deliver goals at vital points. In November, United trailed Aston Villa 2-0 and at the scene of one of their greatest comebacks another one was coming. Introduced at half-time, the Mexican levelled the score at 2-2. From that point you felt there could only be one winner and he duly completed his hat-trick with a diving header.
The match when United pulled away in the title race came in December. Keen to assert themselves at the Etihad, United had the dream start and asserted a two goal lead before having it cancelled out with a late Zabaleta equaliser very late on. Unbowed by City’s resolve at levelling the scores, Rafael found himself in dangerous territory and was fouled by Tevez. As if scripted, van Persie stepped up and via a deflection off the cowardly Samir Nasri the ball spun past Joe Hart. Cue delirium. A psychological blow had been landed as well as a six point lead at the top which never really looked in danger since.
Christmas is often looked upon as the period that can make or break a season. United faced a tricky programme with a hard fought draw at Swansea coming three days before a home game against Newcastle United on Boxing Day. The action was mesmeric with the away side taking the lead three times as well as the tremendous sight of Sir Alex Ferguson publicly lambasting the officials at the beginning of the second half.
With the score at 3-3 and time running out, a cool head was needed amidst the bedlam and while Hernandez again scored the winner, credit goes to Michael Carrick for the assist. At first-glance it appeared a hopeful cross yet those who have watched and admired him will know the delivery was measured to perfection. He anticipated the run and married it with a lofted pass into space. All it required was a simple first-time finish. Football porn.
Fulham away was a game of few chances and the vital intervention came late on from Wayne Rooney. Latching onto Jonny Evans’ long ball before adroitly curling the ball into the bottom right corner. A tricky away trip had been overcome and vital momentum was kept.
The 4-4 draw with Everton last season was where it all began to go horribly wrong. A video of the final ten minutes would have served as worthy motivation before the game to simply get the job done, grab the points and tick off another match. An early goal was ideal and Ryan Giggs duly provided. Van Persie added a second shortly before half-time and with Marouane Fellaini marked out of the game by Phil Jones, a dogged Everton side were dispatched.
A 13 point lead had been set by the time the Aston Villa game arrived. With City losing at Spurs the day before this was the final push. Another early goal settled the nerves yet the defining moment of the game, nay, the whole season, was to come.
The pass from Rooney itself was audacious enough with van Persie not even having to break stride. As the ball fell into his path, there was a split-second when Old Trafford drew breath in anticipation before the Dutchman let fly to crown the new champions in emphatic fashion. For 11 arduous months, United fans had to endure that clip of Sergio Aguero winning the league with the final kick of the season. Not any more.