x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Manchester United's drive to a 20th Premier League title started early

Manchester United's title win is the ideal response to their disappointment last season.

Manchester United struck their first blow in their march to a 20th title when they signed Robin van Persie, who was targeted by Roberto Mancini and Manchester City.
Manchester United struck their first blow in their march to a 20th title when they signed Robin van Persie, who was targeted by Roberto Mancini and Manchester City.

As Manchester United's players celebrated on the Old Trafford turf on Monday night, this was a triumph with a difference.

Most title-winning campaigns begin in August. Some, given the importance managers attach to a pre-season programme, commence in July.

Not United's.

The seeds of their 20th league championship were sowed last May when they stood on the pitch at Sunderland's Stadium of Light, expecting to receive their medals. They were seconds away from celebrating when Sergio Aguero intervened, diverting the trophy to Manchester City.

So, context has been everything for United.

This season has been a reaction to last. A side never lacking in resolve have displayed renewed determination to reclaim their crown. Performances may have been mixed, but their results have been almost flawless.

They have been ruthless, remorseless and relentless.

Quite simply, such dramatic disappointments do not happen twice to Sir Alex Ferguson. His early season focus was on goal difference; it would not cost them the league again. As United's dominance has become entrenched, it has become irrelevant. Win 27 of your 34 league games and goal difference is not a factor.

The first battle was won before a ball was kicked. When Robin van Persie's signature was secured, United had made their first statement signing since Dimitar Berbatov in 2008. More to the point, they had recruited the Premier League's outstanding player last season when he was a transfer target of Roberto Mancini and Manchester City.

If a season can be distilled into one moment, it was Van Persie's injury-time winner at Etihad Stadium in December. This was his impact in minutiae, a big-game player scoring when it mattered most. Even City's win in April's return fixture, galling as it was, mattered not in the overall picture.

United had done the hard work in autumn and winter.

The early fixture list early in the season was daunting. By Christmas, however, they had won away at Liverpool, Chelsea and City. In a run of 19 goals in 22 league games, Van Persie had scored in each of those victories.

While he was fast-tracked into status of a true United player, it was partly because a treasured tradition was extended.

Comebacks are part of the fabric of the club and, in the glow of victory, Ferguson often complains how his players make life difficult for themselves. Yet the measure of the men is found in the response and United have secured nine victories from losing positions.

For half a season, falling behind was an occupational hazard until, belatedly, they started to defend like champions.

Footballers at opposite ends of their careers have flourished, with the goalkeeper David De Gea coming of age after an uncertain start, and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic patching themselves up to produce displays of defiance in central defence.

This is United, where the past can also be the present.

Past his 39th birthday, Ryan Giggs nevertheless rallied for the second half of the campaign. His record 13th title is particularly notable for an elegantly influential display in February's win over Everton.

His contribution was quietly revealing in other ways.

As it stands, 21 players will qualify for a medal and each can point to matches when his input was invaluable.

Would United have won the title without Paul Scholes's telling cameos in the comebacks at Southampton or Liverpool?

Or Phil Jones's dogged efforts to halt Gareth Bale and Marouane Fellaini?

Or Shinji Kagawa's terrific home debut against Fulham, which restored momentum after the opening-day defeat to Everton?

While Van Persie has led the way, 19 players have registered a goal. Despite indifferent form and extended spells on the bench, respectively, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez have been prolific in spells.

Three stand above their colleagues: the peerless Van Persie, the classy, consistent Michael Carrick and the buccaneering, improving Rafael da Silva. Above all, however, is the remarkable Ferguson.

His haul now stands at 13 league titles, more than the combined total of Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough, Alf Ramsey and Bill Nicholson.

Mancini sometimes argues that United are not a better team than City, and in part, that is true: City's best may be better than anyone else's. Yet that only increases United's achievement in winning the title with five games to go.

Man for man, this is not one of Ferguson's greatest sides, but they have mastered the art of winning games.

Should they emerge victorious in their last four and finish with an unparalleled total of 96 points, no one will ever have been more accomplished at winning.

It is a fitting tribute to the manager, the ultimate winner himself.

 

sports@thenational.ae

 

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