Fergie revels in title dream
As the new champions bounced up and down in front of the East Stand, flags draped around their shoulders, listening to a raucous Old Trafford chorus, the names of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, the architect of their success stood alone in the centre circle. Facing the stand that bears his name, surrounded by proof of his astonishing career, a smile of quiet satisfaction crossed Sir Alex Ferguson's face.
This was a cathartic celebration for Manchester United. The demons of last year have been banished. Normal service has been restored. They have been restored to their preferred position of England's pre-eminence. For Ferguson, that was enough. "Most teams in the country would have melted after losing the league last season," he said. "Not this team."
So, the child of World War II, who won a 21st century battle against a Manchester City team funded by oil money from the Arabian Gulf was a bystander. When his charges, having swapped the East Stand for the Stretford End, leapt around to the sound of The Courteneers' Not Nineteen Forever, the 71-year-old lingered at the edge, lacking the rhythm of his noisier neighbour Rafael da Silva. Then he punched the air and disappeared down the tunnel before the bombast of Queen's We Are The Champions began, Rio Ferdinand running faster than he has for years in a display of grandstanding.
Ferguson has no such need to follow suit. He has had a dozen other opportunities to revel in his prowess. In 1993, his first title came at Aston Villa's expense. Two decades on, his latest was secured was the compliance of their generous defence. He has won 13 titles. It is an incredible, unrepeatable achievement from a complete one-off.
"Our consistency for the last 20 years has been unbelievable," said the man who has provided the drive throughout. This side, he argues, bears comparison with their distinguished predecessors. "It must," Ferguson insisted. "Nostalgia plays tricks on people's minds."
The current collective have been damned by comparison with past greats. As they crossed the finishing line, however, they did so with a flourish. This was worthy of any United team. They were expansive. It was emphatic.
Appropriately, Van Persie made the decisive contribution. The No. 20 has ensured the club's 20th title. With three goals and one goal-line clearance, providing inspiration and perspiration. "He has been unbelievable," said Ferguson.
The initial impression is that RVP has been the MVP, a provider of significant goals since his arrival. But, after the efficiency he exhibited in autumn, here was the artistry. His second of his hat-trick simply stunning. While he established a reputation at Arsenal as the Premier League's finest exponent of the volley, this was more Van Basten than Van Persie. He met Rooney's chip over the Villa back four with a thunderbolt of a shot. "it doesn't matter where you place that with all the great goals from David Beckham, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, [Eric] Cantona, that takes place with that," said Ferguson, casting his mind back across the years in the search for a strike of similar brilliance.
The player of the season may just have scored the goal of the year. "Goal of the century," Ferguson argued. As his treble ensured he overhauled Luis Suarez in the scorers' chants, Van Persie could end up with Golden Boot and Player of the Year silverware to accompany his long-awaited winner's medal in the Premier League.
The Dutchman's volley was sandwiched by goals provided by Ryan Giggs, unselfish and unparalleled, 39 years young but haring up and down the left flank as though this were still the 20th century. Van Persie's supply line has now won as many titles as his former employers Arsenal, an indication of United's remarkable success in the Premier League era.
Meanwhile, Rooney marked his 400th United appearance by suggesting the bulk of the next 400 could come in the middle of midfield. His was a convincing impression of a playmaker, more Gazza than 'Wazza', picking out long-range passes with audacious expertise. "Some of the football in the first half was fantastic," Ferguson added.
Rooney was the instigator, Van Persie the executioner. For good measure, the £24 million man garnished his contribution by averting a Villa fightback, clearing Andreas Weimann's header when David de Gea was beaten. The consolation for them lay not in a goal, but in knowing that, despite a flurry of United chances, there was no repeat of their 8-0 mauling at Stamford Bridge. Nevertheless, with Villa's goal difference worsening, Roberto Martinez, the manager of relegation rivals Wigan, could smile. He was in the directors' box. So, too, were the Glazers, seeing a fifth title of their reign at Old Trafford.
But if the owners have been an impediment, Ferguson, more than ever, is incomparable. He has 13 titles. It is lucky for some, and they are all to be found at Old Trafford.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Robin van Persie - All of a sudden, he is in majestic form again. Van Persie now has 28 goals for the season and could reach the 30 barrier on his return to Arsenal on Sunday.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Excellent. They played with flair on an occasion to enjoy. While their open approach allowed Villa chances on the counter-attack, it mattered not that neither Ferdinand nor Nemanja Vidic was deemed fit enough to start. Antonio Valencia, meanwhile, is back in form after his bleak winter.
ASTON VILLA VERDICT: The good news is their fate is in their own hands. They have four games remaining, three against relegation rivals, and they have the firepower to score in each of them. The problem is they could concede in each, too. Left-back Joe Bennett has struggled all season and was a liability. A struggling back four were not helped by Lambert's bold selection. He started with four attacking players and, though Andreas Weimann presented a real threat and Charles N'Zogbia was removed at half-time, the damage had been done by then.