Van Persie ends drought as United closes on title
STOKE, England (AP)
Robin van Persie ended his two-month goal drought to wrap up Manchester United's 2-0 win over Stoke on Sunday, restoring the leaders' 15-point cushion and inching them closer to the Premier League title.
The Netherlands striker had gone 10 United matches without scoring before slamming home a 66th-minute penalty - his 20th goal of the campaign - to add to midfielder Michael Carrick's opening goal from close range in the fourth minute.
By successfully recovering from the derby defeat to Manchester City on Monday, United needs only seven more points from its last six matches to clinch a 20th English championship. That would also require second-place City winning all seven of its remaining games.
''I have told the players that we are going to take the next six games as the start of the season and try to win them all,'' said Alex Ferguson, who earned his 900th win as United manager. ''Would we fancy ourselves to win that league? I think we would.''
Van Persie is likely to win a maiden title in his first season at Old Trafford, and he has arguably done more than anyone to help rip the trophy from City's grasp. However, his goals - if not his impressive performances - had dried up of late and he was in the midst of his driest spell in nine years in English football.
The relief on his face was understandable then, as he sprinted down the touchline after slotting the spot kick past Asmir Begovic and headed straight for Ferguson. The manager has kept faith in the Dutchman, who lifted him up after a hug and then high-fived teammates.
''The relief of a couple of weeks came out, I would say,'' Van Persie said. ''I wanted to celebrate with everyone - players and staff and all players on the bench - as they have been great to me from day one. Even when it is a little harder they still support me and believe in me and help me when they can. That's why I wanted everyone to join in.''
It was just as happy a day for Wayne Rooney, who was given a rare start in central midfield by Ferguson and gave a masterful display, controlling play with class, poise and a wonderful range of passing.
It helped United rebound in the ideal way from the 2-1 home loss to City, when Rooney struggled as Van Persie's partner up front.
''It was horrible,'' Rooney said. ''No matter how many points clear you are, you want to win, and unfortunately we didn't do that. The best thing to do was to respond and show we could come to Stoke to get the three points.''
In fairness, Rooney was given an easy ride by the hosts, whose famed physical approach was distinctly lacking on a bitterly cold and windy afternoon in the midlands. Their midfield was toyed with and they offered precious little in attack, leaving under-fire manager Tony Pulis with plenty to ponder in the forthcoming relegation battle.
Having regressed in the league in each of its past three seasons, Stoke has dropped to fifth from bottom and remains just three points from the relegation zone. With only one win in its last 14 matches, Stoke has the worst record in the league in 2013.
''It's a five-game season now,'' said Pulis, who stormed out of his post-match news conference when a reporter questioned whether his job was under pressure. ''There's eight or nine teams in the scrap - the season starts now.''
While Rooney was the standout player, at least in a one-sided first half, it was his central-midfield partner who put United ahead with a rare goal.
It was a scrappy one, with Van Persie's inswinging corner causing all sorts of mayhem. Stoke failed to clear and the ball bobbled toward Carrick, who stabbed a low finish beyond Begovic's despairing dive for United's 100th goal of the season in all competitions.
Rooney curled a free kick just past the post, Van Persie's audacious effort from 50 yards drifted wide while Stoke's attacks continued to peter out. United center backs Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will never have had a more comfortable half at Britannia Stadium.
Playing against the wind in the second half didn't halt United's momentum, and Van Persie will be disappointed he didn't test Begovic when he was played through out wide by Javier Hernandez.
Jonathan Walters hooked a shot over and Charlie Adam brought an easy save out of United goalkeeper David de Gea as Stoke finally began to show signs of attacking intent near the hour mark.
But Van Persie soon ended any hopes of a comeback, picking himself up after being tripped by Ryan Shawcross in the 65th and drilling a low penalty into the right corner. It was his first goal since United's second in a 2-0 win over Everton on Feb. 10 - and he let Ferguson know about it.
''As a goal-scorer, every player in the world has had a few games when they don't score, but Robin has kept his head down and worked hard and got his goal,'' Rooney said. ''Hopefully this will kick him on as he will be an important player in our next games.''