MANCHESTER // The celebration was cathartic, an eloquent release of emotion after a two-month wait. As Robin van Persie finally ended his two-month goal drought, he ran 50 yards, heading straight for his manager, and hugged Sir Alex Ferguson with sufficient force he almost knocked the pensioner off his feet.
"He nearly killed me," laughed the Scot. "He forgets I'm 71." He was tottering but, at a blustery Britannia Stadium, Manchester United were not blown off course. Van Persie's clinical penalty gave them a 2-0 victory and a 15-point lead in the title race. It also ended his 750-minute wait for a United goal. His 19th of the league campaign arrived against Everton on February 10. The 20th was delayed but now United's 20th title is a formality.
They only require seven points. Should Manchester City slip up in the meantime, they could be crowned champions next Monday. "We are a game closer," Ferguson said. "The important thing is not to take our eye off the ball." And so, if either of these teams is to have end-of-season drama, it is Stoke City, whose sixth defeat in seven games leaves them perched precariously just above the relegation zone.
Stoke have revelled in upsetting the elite over the years. United are the exceptions, winning nine of 10 Premier League games and taking 28 points from a possible 30. If few victories at the Britannia Stadium are simple affairs, this was.
It was a reminder that United are efficient at disposing of the lesser lights. Their record against teams in the lower half of the league is virtually flawless and it was to their credit that this felt a routine, almost mundane win.
It helped that they led after four minutes. Stoke were the supposed set-piece specialists but United were the team to score from a corner. Van Persie's deep delivery was aimed at Phil Jones. While the right-back could not get his shot away, the ball sat up obligingly for Michael Carrick to prod in. "The first goal kills it," lamented Stoke manager Tony Pulis.
Thereafter they assumed control. Shifted into midfield, Rooney brought the competitiveness and the energy United lacked in Monday's Manchester derby. He was outstanding, spraying passes around, surging forward and enjoying his ability to be involved in everything. "He was brilliant," said Ferguson. "I thought a spell in midfield would do him the world of good and it worked for us."
Rooney could have doubled their lead with a stinging shot Asmir Begovic parried. So, from the Englishman's perceptive pass, could Van Persie, who spurned another chance when found beautifully by Javier Hernandez. Instead, his wait for a goal lasted for another few minutes.
Then Rooney picked out Van Persie, the striker turned and was fouled by Andy Wilkinson and he drilled his spot kick beyond Begovic. "He did really good work from Wayne's pass to get to the penalty," Ferguson added. "Then the ball moved off the spot two or three times and he showed composure to settle himself down and score a perfect penalty - low, hard and into the corner."
If scoring had been a problem for Van Persie, it still is for Stoke, the Premier League's least prolific team. Pulis had bowed to the crowd's calls for Charlie Adam by selecting the Scot, albeit in a more advanced role just behind striker Kenwyne Jones. Adam came closest with a free kick that David De Gea clawed away, but Stoke were sterile.
Another of those often overlooked, Michael Owen, was brought on for a late cameo, to considerable cheers. More than anything, they were a demonstration of dissent against the manager after a stunning decline. Stoke possess the division's poorest record in 2013. The calendar year has produced just five points, the last seven games a mere one. Without an upturn, their five-year stay in the Premier League will surely end.
"It's a five-game season for us," said Pulis. "It starts now."
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