Van Persie guides United to Premier League title
MANCHESTER, England (AP)
With 75,000 delirious Manchester United fans chanting ''champions, champions'' at full voice, Rio Ferdinand tugged the back of Robin van Persie's shirt bearing his squad number and shouted: ''No. 20, No. 20.''
Twenty was the number at Old Trafford on Monday.
United produced a performance of style and swagger to extend its record haul of English league titles to 20, overwhelming Aston Villa 3-0 to wrap up the championship with four matches to spare and reclaim the trophy from local rival Manchester City.
Van Persie, United's driving force all season, scored all three goals in a clinical first-half display. Dressed for the occasion - he was wearing the No. 20 shirt.
''It's a great feeling,'' said the Netherlands striker, the top scorer in the league with 24 goals in his first season with United. ''It is a fantastic team and fantastic players. It is a championship for every single one of them.''
Alex Ferguson's decision to sign Van Persie in the last offseason for 24 million pounds ($36 million) - a hefty price for a previously injury-prone player with just a year left on his Arsenal contract - has turned into a masterstroke.
As Ferguson ambled into the center circle moments after the final whistle to soak up the party atmosphere, he was soon embraced by Van Persie, who left Ferdinand and the rest of his teammates celebrating in front of fans and made a beeline for the Scot.
''I remember (Arsenal manager) Arsene Wenger saying he's a better player than you think - I think he could be right,'' said Ferguson, who secured the 49th trophy of his managerial career.
''In terms of impact, I think it's as big as anyone I can remember.''
With United needing a victory to dethrone City, Van Persie led the charge by scoring the opener after only 83 seconds and then steering in a sublime volley in the 12th.
The party had started in earnest by the time he wrapped up his hat trick in the 33rd, giving United an unassailable 16-point lead over City.
United clinched a 13th title in 21 seasons of the Premier League with nearly a month remaining in the season - all under Ferguson and the earliest a club has clinched the Premier League title since United in 2001.
''It is sweet, it doesn't matter when you win it,'' Ferguson said. ''The consistency has been phenomenal. We have lived up to the expectation.''
After throwing away an eight-point lead with six games to play last season, United was determined to grab the title at the first opportunity this time and there was no danger of a collapse against relegation-threatened Villa.
United's players celebrated jubilantly in front of all four ends of Old Trafford. The meltdown last year hurt, especially coming at the hands of a fierce rival and in the final minute of the season.
''When you lose it in the manner that we did last year, it's always special to win it back,'' said Ryan Giggs, the United midfielder still going strong at 39. ''We did it in style.''
Van Persie's second goal will rank among the best at Old Trafford in recent years, the Dutchman connecting sweetly from the edge of the area following a perfectly weighted pass from Wayne Rooney. As the net rippled, Van Persie sprinted along the touchline to receive the acclaim of Old Trafford.
''As far as I'm concerned, it's the goal of the season,'' Ferguson said. ''Technique, head over the ball. Magnificent strike.''
City manager Roberto Mancini previously acknowledged that Van Persie has been ''the difference'' between the two teams this season, and each of the three goals must have been painful to watch for the blue half of Manchester.
''That's why we are champions,'' the celebrating United faithful sang midway through the first half, the title in the bag.
The trophy will be presented to United after its last home game of the season, against Swansea on May 12.
Villa will likely still be in a relegation battle then. This loss kept the team only three points above the bottom three, with just four games left.
Giggs has been with United for all 13 league titles, and the Welsh midfielder played a key role in Van Persie's other two goals.
His cushioned volley along the face of the 6-yard box was tapped in by Van Persie to give United the perfect start with barely a minute played.
And the striker showed a cool head to claim his hat trick, taking Giggs' short cross, rounding goalkeeper Brad Guzan and placing his shot into the top corner off the post from 7 yards out.
Van Persie is likely to finish the league's top scorer for the second straight season as he is one clear of Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, who is expected to be banned for the final month for biting an opponent on Sunday.
The end to a perfect first season with England's new champions.