Manchester United 3-0 Aston Villa
Ah! Where to begin? Twenty minutes after the end of the match Sir Alex Ferguson is bowing to the Stretford End while, across the field, Robin Van Persie is encircled by the Dutch press, both of them serenaded by Queen’s We Are the Champions. Is this the same crowd–most of them clad in the green and yellow striped scarves of M.U.S.T. protest–that has repeatedly voiced so much ambivalence about their manager’s unrelenting support for the club’s American owners, the Glazer family? On the night, resentments have been set to one side. They adore him and he adores them back. As with most families. The relationships may be fractious and sometimes truculent, but the club is beloved by all in their own way and winning the championship back is sweet to all and sundry.
Meanwhile, Robin Van Persie is being adored and assaulted with questions by a Nederlander press corps he talks to on a first name basis. An old aquaintance from Rotterdam, Henk Van Sleewanhoek, who has , I’m told, been his tormenter since leaving Arsenal for United instead of (the journo’s preference) Juventus gets the most attention.
“Did you ever think you’d come out of your dry spell of terrible misses?” the cheeky writer asks.
“I was worried,” says Robin. “I was not sleeping.”
“So this hat-trick you scored must feel fantastic.”
“I have never been so happy, This is my greatest day ever as a player and the first time in my career I have ever won a championship. No thanks to you, Henk!”
I only mention all this because I caught it all on the iPad of a Dutch friend. A long time mate and a fellow United fan, Jaapie has been following Van Persie’s career since way before he signed for Feyenoord in the Eredvisie. With a history of never ever having played a full season of football until last season’s contract year, Van Persie had been thought of as an inconsistently brilliant. An awesome talent who, like his compatriot, Arjen Robben, was unable or unwilling to play through pain. United paid a fee of £24m and wages of £220,000 per week for a player who was too often hurt and it seemed like no bargain at all, especially because he was taking up a place in the squad vacated by the departure to Fulham of Ferguson’s grand folly, the consistently inconsistent Dimitar Berbatov. Well, we were as wrong can be! Van Persie has been as brilliant as a newly discovered sun appearing in the firmament out of some black hole. Beyond the spectacular goals he has scored is his place as the best Manchester United table-setter I have ever seen. A brilliant taker of corners and free-kicks his clever linkup play has been instrumental in the improvement of Wayne Rooney, who is now a more complete player than ever before; Javíer Hernandéz, who is becoming better and better at screening the ball and setting up teammates; even the sometimes out-of-control ungainly presence of Danny Welbeck has been much improved by playing in his proximity.
Of course, there were hints of this at the last World Cup. Especially when RVP, alongside Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van Der Vart dismantled Brazil’s self-anointed Samba machine. A great player for the great occasion, Van Persie arrived at Old Trafford on Monday afternoon about as ready as ready has ever been. Having won the championship nineteen times and having blown it big-time a year ago on, of all things, goal average, United played like a team of destiny. This has not always been the case over a surprisingly inconsistent season, but United wanted to clinch at home, especially considering next week away match away at United’s long time rivals Arsenal, who just happen, in case you live in a vacuum and don’t know, to be Robin Van Persie’s old club. Primed and prepareed, thy were a red steamroller determined to be reunited with their trophy. And with Robin van Persie playing at his maximum exquisite artistic best, it seemed apt and altogether natural that he would completely dominate the match. Indeed, it felt appropriate that the Dutchman should be so transcendent and dominant on the night.
Van Persie might not win the individual honors but he has certainly had the greatest impact of any player on the Premier League this season and his first-half hat-trick, taking him to 24 league goals, saw him leapfrogging Luis Suárez as the leading scorer in the division. And having just been suspended from playing for ten games after a biting offense against Chelsea’s Bronislav Ivanovic in Sunday’s 2-2 tie, Suarez will clearly not win this year’s Golden Boot award. Such accolades and awards are well deserved by Van Persie who is clearly the best striker playing in England. In the match, he was everything, the warhead of United’s multi-faceted attacking game, a constant menace. It seems absurd to think that making it feel like a trick of the imagination that only one week ago he was overreacting to chances, devastated by a short, debilitating patch where he couldn’t score.
Going in with a 13-point lead, Ferguson set the team up with Wayne Rooney as its play making fulcrum. Inspired as much as Van Persie, it seems, Rooney was both a bodyguard for the brilliant-but-brittle Michael Carrick and an inspired passer. If Paul Lambert’s pack of young midfield jackals pressed him, Rooney would execute short and square to the Geordie greyhound. If they tried to cut off Carrick, Rooney was ready and waiting to ping Ginger Prince-style long, probing chip shots from United’s half. And poor Villa, who have let in a grand nightmare total of 64 goals this season were simply powerless to resist.
Two minutes in and Manchester United needed to be nervous no more. A long seeing-eye pass from Rooney found Antonio Valencia on the right. Rafael Da Silva swept up behind the Ecuadorian in support, jinking this way and that toward Villa’s box before finding the Old Master, Ryan Giggs, at the far post. Giggs casually squared his cross into Van Persie’s path out of a clawing Brad Guzan’s reach and, only two steps off the goal line, the Dutchman fired a simple tapper home.
Villa were already gob smacked and semi-destroyed. Four minutes later. Surrounded after picking up a Carrick chip, RVP fired a thirty-yarder of a volley over Guzan’s bar by a bare inch. He was just warming up. however. As if on cue, eleven minutes later, Rooney and van Persie gave us a bit of oo-wah-wow up there with Cantona and the blessed Trinity. Wazza dished up a superb curving chip that Van Persie somehow timed his run onto with a perfect moment of synchronization for the ages. Looking up, he somehow calculated the spinning trajectory of the ball and his perfect left-footed volley, as pure a piece of combined power and execution as I’ll ever see, went flying past Villa’s frozen, open mouthed goalie into the net. Did anyone ever make it look so simple? What followed, his victory run from one end of the pitch to the other with a victorious arm raised, really was the stuff of which legends are made.
For most of the half, Manchester united was a thing of beauty. Giggs repeatedly mugging and nutmegging poor Matthew Lowton. Carrick and Rooney grinning as the crowd sang their songs between marvelous examples of the passer’s art, ran Villa ragged. The sight of Giggsy out sprinting a player sixteen years his junior was the stuff of dreams. And in the midst of a familiar Stretford End serenade about Le Maitre Cantona, the Red Devils struck again.
33 minutes in, Rooney and the casually fluid Shinji Kagawa double one-two’d it in midfield and Giggs was free and clear of his marker Ron Vlar on the left. Robin Van Persie picked up his cross, snaked past Brad Guzan, and utilizing his brilliantly cool, cruel acumen, ignoring the four defenders around him, feinted toward a sprinting Lowton, shifted his balance to his right and pushed the ball home.
To the chagrin of many of the celebrating fans, United eased off the accelerator from then on. The boys taking it light and easy, especially after the interval. Villa launched themselves back into things and, even though they own no worthwhile defensive quality beyond the Job-like sufferings of Ron Vlar, Paul Lambert’s kids gave it a good go. Indeed, Ferguson was angry enough at Patrice Evra for repeatedly fouling a wing-heeled Kieran Westwood and receiving a yellow card that he ventured early to the touchline and gestured both his disapproval at his fading left back and his suddenly lackadaisical teammates. Indeed, Evra, already booked, was way beyond lucky that the referee, Anthony Taylor, did not punish a pair of brutal tackles from behind on both N’Zogbia and Weimann. Van Persie even became a defensive hero late in the match when he headed away a superb shot from Andreas Weimann off the goal line.
From then on it was all party. And clearly, had United put their war faces on again, many more goals could have been scored. Still, both Rooney and Kagawa saw their shots rattle off the bar. Having clinched with the win at home against Villa following Manchester City’s loss to Tottenham Hotspur, the challenge now, with four matches left is to beat out Chelsea’s best ever Premier League tally of 96 points.l