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Apr 22, 2013

Fergie achieves 20/20 vision with United

Briefly, cruelly, Manchester United thought they had entered their roaring twenties 11 months ago. For a matter of seconds, as they stood on the pitch at the Stadium of Light after beating Sunderland, they thought they were champions for the 20th time.

Then, in the 200th second of injury time at the Etihad Stadium, Sergio Aguero made a decisive, deadly intervention. For the first time in 44 years, Manchester City had won the league. Their rivals made history, too: They had claimed 89 points, and no one had ever managed more without securing the title.

Fast forward to the present day, and records are tumbling again. United are in uncharted territory, becoming the first English club to win 20 Premier League titles, on course to top their own highest point tally in a season (92 in 1993-94) and only requiring four more wins to set a new Premier League best (overhauling Chelsea's 95 in 2004-05).

And yet this has not been about the facts and figures as much as revenge and redemption. Everything that has happened since then can be traced back to the events of May 13, 2012, to the pain of losing the title to the neighbours they long patronised. United were the world's outstanding team in 2008. Four years later, they were only second best in Manchester.

Not anymore. When City are at their finest, they are a match for their rivals, as they showed in April's derby at Old Trafford. Yet the league table is famously truthful. It shows United are the runaway champions, the most consistent team, a machine churning out win after win.

Since that setback at Sunderland last May, a side rarely lacking in determination have returned with renewed purpose. A manager criticised for not spending became more extravagant. Having gone four years without signing a proven world-class player near the peak of his powers, Ferguson recruited two: Shinji Kagawa, who has provided moments of class, and Robin van Persie, who spent his first six months at Old Trafford delivering crucial contributions on a weekly basis.

None were more important than his injury-time winner at the Etihad Stadium. Once coveted by City, van Persie condemned them to defeat. It was the moment that the pendulum of power in Manchester swung back in United's favour. Having provoked a reaction with their impudence in winning the league, City got one.

It came during a run of 18 league games in which United dropped just four points. Ferguson's past teams were primed to peak in March, April and May. This one were at their most efficient in winter, demoralising their rivals on a weekly basis. They were out of sight by the time spring belatedly bloomed.

They prospered despite unusual early-season frailties at the back -- which were only corrected after Boxing Day's 4-3 win over Newcastle, but nevertheless in characteristic fashion --with a series of comebacks showing this side bears Ferguson's stamp.

It is not one of his finest, whatever the Scot says and despite their remarkable points total: the vintages of 1994, 1999 and 2008 had the swagger and the quality to out-class the current collective. And yet, in a way, that renders this a greater achievement. Team spirit and canny management of a large pool of players account for their success, albeit in a downgraded division whose failings have been exposed on the continental stage.

Because this has been a triumph of the squad. Only van Persie and Michael Carrick are guaranteed a place in the Professional Footballers' Association's Team of the Season, though it would be harsh to omit Rio Ferdinand. But, with 19 goal scorers and 21 men entitled to a medal, they have had plenty of contributors. Some, like David de Gea, Rafael da Silva and Phil Jones, have offered rich promise; others, such as Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Ryan Giggs, have sought to defy the passing of time. Even those whose form has fluctuated, such as Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes, can point to matches in which they have proved invaluable.

Between them, they have fashioned season-shaping results. Tough away games were frontloaded on the fixture list. United may have lost at Everton in August, but they won at Liverpool in September, Chelsea in October and City in December. Only Tottenham, who took four points from their two meetings, can truly argue they have had the better of the champions over 180 minutes. While City also won at Old Trafford, they claimed victory in the battle long after they had lost the war.

Because, like Liverpool before them, City have been knocked off their perch by Ferguson. Indeed, the 71-year-old has now won 13 league titles, as many as Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish managed between them in a golden three decades at Anfield. The sense is that Ferguson's focus is always on the next trophy, not the last, but when he reflects on an unprecedented haul, the triumph of 2013 will stand out. This has been the year United reconquered Manchester and, with it, England.

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