By Liam Twomey
As the final whistle blew and his weary arms rose in unison with Old Trafford, the expression on Robin van Persie’s face was surprisingly understated. Relief was evident as he puffed out his cheeks at the floor, together with the beginnings of the euphoria which would swiftly follow. Above all else, though, two words were etched in the tired but happy Dutchman’s features: Job done. Manchester United's 20th league title sealed by their prolific No.20.
And in what style. The Dutchman’s 33-minute hat-trick was the fastest in the Premier League for nine years, and boasted a volley so stupendous Sir Alex Ferguson dubbed it “Goal of the Century”.
But of course, for Manchester United and Van Persie, this title was won long ago. Won with a flawless February which saw the lead at the top of the table grow from seven points to an insurmountable 12. Won with a last-gasp deflected Van Persie winner at the Etihad Stadium in December which shifted the balance of power in Manchester.
Roberto Mancini, while apparently mystified at his players’ collective inability to mount anything resembling a title defence, has never been in any doubt about the main difference between this season and last. “Robin van Persie is an important player for them,” he told reporters in December. “It's clear that the difference is this. He has changed the situation.”
It is an assessment Sir Alex would treat as a grand compliment. Last summer, amid the soul-searching prompted by the beautifully brutal manner in which Manchester City had won their first league title since 1968, most agreed the only area of the United squad not urgently in need of top-class reinforcement was the ever-reliable attack.
Sir Alex, however, thought different. His team had ultimately been bested not on points, but goal difference. His solution was to splash out £24 million to acquire the Premier League’s top scorer and attempt to tighten up his defence by keeping his existing options fit.
Interestingly, United have already conceded more goals this term (35) than last (33), and need 12 more from their remaining four games to equal the tally in last season’s scored column (89).
Yet Van Persie has indeed been the difference. Not only has he found the net 24 times – including winners against Southampton, Liverpool, West Ham, Reading, City and Aston Villa – but, denied his services, Mancini’s men have mustered only 59 goals compared to 79 at this stage last year.
In the absence of a genuine world-class midfield playmaker or enforcer, United rarely control games in the conventional sense. Instead they have become masters of the high-intensity spurt, battering teams into submission in the space of a 15 to 20 minute spell, often early or late. And with Van Persie spearheading the attack, they are more ruthless than ever.
But United also changed Van Persie’s situation. Having finally mastered the quirks of his troublesome physiology, the prodigiously talented Dutchman found himself able to unleash with full fury his world-class ability last season with Arsenal.
By then, however, he had already begun to feel increasingly like a man swimming against the tide, toiling away while the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy moved on to bigger and better things. He had been as willing to wait for the Gunners as they had been for him but, with the arrival of his 29th birthday, he ran out of time.
Van Persie needed to win a Premier League title fast, and rightly concluded United’s unrivalled pedigree in this regard presented the best chance of realising his dream. United’s need was just as urgent: to erase the memory of those tortuous two minutes at the Stadium of Light, to silence the upstarts in blue, and to regain their own sense of identity. Manchester United do not finish second.
It is this hunger which has made both player and club so relentless. It is also why Van Persie has seemed so much happier. “I feel that I'm surrounded by champions,” he told MUTV back in January. “This is a special team. They know how to win and that makes it really easy for me.”
If scoring a goal is the hardest thing to do in football, winning a league title must be a close second. Proving yourself the best team in the land over 10 long months, taking on sometimes unglamorous but always motivated opposition, while managing the demands and distractions borne by other competitions, is a journey which offers no shortcuts.
Van Persie and United, however, have made both appear unusually easy this season. And now, with a Premier League winners’ medal finally occupying pride of place on his mantelpiece, the Dutchman can set his sights on further glories.
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