United swats aside another challenger to win title
Fuelled by money from the Middle East, Manchester City was supposed to have ushered in a new period of dominance in English football last season after capturing its first league title in nearly half a century.
Manchester United had other ideas.
Just like Arsenal and Chelsea previously, City has discovered to its cost that United loves nothing more than hitting back when its hegemony is challenged.
The noisy neighbours - as Alex Ferguson likes to call City - have been well and truly quietened.
To many, this isn't a vintage United team compared to the swashbuckling treble-winning side of 1998-99 and the Cristiano Ronaldo-led line-up from 2007-08. Too many players - Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Antonio Valencia, Paul Scholes, Ashley Young among them - have struggled this season, critics say. It's been more grit than glamor.
The statistics say otherwise.
The title-clinching 3-0 win over Aston Villa on Monday kept the team on course for the highest points tally in history of English topflight football, beating Chelsea's haul of 95 from 2004-05. That will be secured if United wins its final four games.
It has also won more games (27) by this stage of the season than any other team in the 21 seasons of the Premier League.
''Nostalgia plays tricks on people's minds,'' Ferguson said after clinching a 13th Premier League title at United. ''You do it yourself. You say, `Things were not the same when I was a boy' but it is nostalgia.
''We have, what, 84 points? And at this stage of the season, we have never done that. That pedestal is there.''
For Ferguson, it's always simply been about winning. Nothing more, nothing less. And for that, he has Robin van Persie - more than anyone else - to thank.
After losing the league title to City on goal difference in an extraordinary end to last season, Ferguson made signing a top-class striker a priority.
Van Persie had long been one of Ferguson's targets, even more so after finishing the last campaign as the Premier League's top scorer with Arsenal. Problem was, he was also on City's radar.
Only days before the first game of the season, the Netherlands international chose red over blue after a lengthy phone call between Ferguson and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
That 24 million pounds ($36 million) couldn't have been better spent by United. The hat trick against Villa took him to a league-high 24 goals this campaign.
''Sometimes you find the last piece of the jigsaw,'' Ferguson has said, comparing Van Persie's arrival to the impact United great Eric Cantona had on the team when the Frenchman joined in 1993.
After the title-clinching win against Villa, Ferguson added: ''He has made a fantastic contribution to our season. He's in his mature years and winning the league tonight meant the world to him.''
None of United's rivals could live with the pace set by the leaders, although Chelsea gave it a good go in the first few months by arguably playing the best football of the season.
In the end, the sheer number of games Chelsea played in its first season as European champion was partially to blame for the end of its title bid. The firing of Roberto Di Matteo as manager in November didn't help either.
Without Van Persie's goals, Arsenal was never going to mount a serious challenge. So it was left to City to provide a rival for United, but a 3-2 home loss in the derby in December left Ferguson's side six points clear. That cushion then just grew and grew as City faltered.
United has reacted to the challenge set out by Ferguson by sitting as easily the highest scorers in the league, with 78 goals after 34 games.
City, so free-scoring last season, has the best defensive record in the league but has just 59 goals so far.
''It's been our problem this year,'' Mancini said after the 3-2 loss at Tottenham on Sunday. ''When we had a chance, we did not score - it is the mirror of our season.''
A City tweet Monday read: ''Congratulations to Manchester United on winning the Barclays Premier League title for 2012-13.''
It could have been so different had Van Persie opted to move to the Etihad Stadium last August.
As it was, he went with his heart and the Premier League title is back in its usual place - at Old Trafford.