Seven steps which led to title no.20
In the latest of our series celebrating landmark days in the Manchester United calendar, we’re highlighting 22 April, 2013.
That’s the day we secured our 20th top-flight title with a 3-0 win over Aston Villa, thanks to Robin van Persie’s exhilarating first-half hat-trick.
Here we look at seven key matches in the 2012/13 season that set up that coronation against Villa at Old Trafford…
1. SOUTHAMPTON 2 UNITED 3 (2 SEPTEMBER 2012)
A goal on his home debut against Fulham gave us a glimpse of van Persie's potential in a red shirt; his match-winning hat-trick at Southampton rammed the point home. Saints had given Man City a scare on the opening day with their ambitious approach (the Blues finally winning 3-2 at home) and were at it again here, twice exposing aerial weaknesses with headers from Rickie Lambert and Morgan Schneiderlin to lead after 55 minutes. The turning point in the game, though, came with the introduction of Paul Scholes as a substitute on the hour. United regained control of possession in midfield and were far more cohesive in attack. Van Persie, who had equalised at 1-1 in the first half, was given the chance to level from the spot, but his dinked finish was comfortably saved by Kelvin Davis. A lesser striker's head may have dropped, but the Dutchman passed his first real test as a United player in a manner truly befitting his new club. With three minutes of normal time remaining, Rio Ferdinand nodded a Rafael cross against a post and Robin was on hand to poke the ball home. Then in stoppage time, he powered in a near-post header from Nani's cross to steal the points. "I have to say 'thank you' to Paul Scholes," said the hat-trick scorer afterwards. "When he came on, everything started to tick. Every single pass he hit was the right one. He was my Man of the Match."
2. CHELSEA 2 UNITED 3 (28 OCTOBER 2012)
Without a domestic win at the Bridge in a decade, United's chances of reeling in the team leading the Premier League at that point appeared slim – especially factoring in the season's troublesome penchant for early concessions. Flipping that growing trend on its head, however, the Reds roared out of the traps with counter-attacking menace and incision. Central to it all was van Persie; the Dutchman's fourth-minute shot thudded against a post, hit David Luiz and dribbled over Petr Cech's line, before RvP capped a flowing raid with a clinical right-footed finish from Antonio Valencia's cross. Chelsea snapped into life either side of the interval, first through then-Blue Juan Mata with a superb free-kick before Ramires powerfully nodded the hosts level. Frayed United nerves were gradually repaired, however, as Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres were both dismissed in five hectic minutes, before Chicharito further enraged the home support by scooping home Rafael's cross-shot from an offside position to move United within a point of the Blues. "We've had some shocking decisions down here," reflected Sir Alex Ferguson before shrugging: "That's a bit of luck we got."
3. ASTON VILLA 2 UNITED 3 (10 NOVEMBER 2012)
United's defence had shipped 13 goals in the previous six games, so when Christian Benteke bulldozed his way past Chris Smalling to tee up Andreas Weimann's opener, and the Austrian doubled the advantage soon after the restart, it looked like that porousness was finally going to prove costly. Instead, the Reds used the ever-comfortable surroundings of Villa Park to stage yet another fightback. It's fair to say that when Hernandez, a half-time replacement for ex-Villan Ashley Young, reduced the deficit following Scholes's deft pass, the entire home support feared what was coming next. Sure enough, Chicharito's shot deflected in off Ron Vlaar to level the scores and, with three minutes left, van Persie's free-kick was met by a diving header from Hernandez to lay a claim to the match-ball. "I've seen the replay and I think it's going on target," the Mexican said of the second strike, although it was still ruled as an own goal by Vlaar. Regardless, the win took the Reds four points clear of Chelsea at the top of the table – though the Londoners had a game in hand – and a relieved Sir Alex said afterwards: "We came alive. When these players need to do it, they do it."
4. MANCHESTER CITY 2 UNITED 3 (9 DECEMBER 2012)
"It's a great day for us, to go six points clear and beat our greatest rivals," said a joyous Wayne Rooney after this derby victory at the home of the then-champions. "We've waited a long time for this to happen and I'm sure everybody at the club, all the fans... we know how much it means to them and we're delighted. City have had a great record here – to spoil that is a great feeling." There was certainly no mistaking the euphoria in the red majority of Manchester, with Man-of-the-Match Rooney summing up the feelings of not only the players but also the fans. It may not have been redemption for final-day disappointment the previous season, but it was certainly a big step in that direction. Our no.10 had struck twice in a commanding United first-half performance, the best of the season so far, only for City to hit back after the break. Then, deep into injury-time, came another magical moment from man of the season van Persie. His curled free-kick clipped Samir Nasri, beat Joe Hart and joyous celebrations ensued in one corner of the Etihad Stadium. United marched on serenely, while City began to stumble.
5. UNITED 4 NEWCASTLE 3 (26 DECEMBER 2012)
Boxing Day matches are traditionally entertaining affairs but few have provided the spills and thrills of this seven-goal tangle with the Toon. Javier Hernandez's last-gasp finish secured an incredible victory to move United seven points clear of City, who were unable to overcome their own north-east knockabout, losing 1-0 at Sunderland. The Reds had become experts of escapology under Sir Alex and needed that ability again in this festive fixture, recovering from a goal down three times before claiming victory. James Perch, Papiss Cisse and a much-debated Jonny Evans own goal gave visiting Magpies fans cause for festive cheer. But each time the Reds responded, through Evans, Evra and van Persie, then came the rousing final act of an unforgettable afternoon as Chicharito latched onto Michael Carrick's pinpoint pass to send decibel levels soaring in MI6. "It was a great feeling and a great moment," said a beaming Chicha afterwards. Team-mate Rio Ferdinand was just as delighted, saying: "We seem to make sure the punters get their money's worth when they come to the ground at the moment. It was really important to get the win, no matter how we did it."
6. FULHAM 0 UNITED 1 (2 FEBRUARY 2013)
You never know what you're going to get at the Cottage: our last four league visits had comprised a thumping 5-0 win, a galling 2-2 draw and two damaging defeats. Thankfully the Reds followed the previous season's victory by the Thames with another win, albeit a narrow one. In truth, this was a game that could have ended with almost any scoreline. The keepers were in fine form and both sides struck the woodwork as Fulham offered a much stiffer test than their supine showing in the FA Cup a week earlier. David De Gea was extended by Bryan Ruiz and John Arne Riise as the hosts stood firm and hit on the break. A floodlight failure three minutes before half-time held up the entertainment, but the two sides continued to carve out chances in the second period. Eventually, Rooney capitalised on Philippe Senderos's misjudgment of a long pass forward from Evans and the striker steered the ball expertly around the covering Aaron Hughes into the corner – part Ronaldo, part Whiteside. "A goal out of nothing," lamented Cottagers boss Martin Jol. His side weren't done, though, and piled on the pressure, with goal-line clearances from Rafael and van Persie required to preserve a slender lead in the match, and open a double-digit gap over Manchester City at the top of the table.
7. STOKE 0 UNITED 2 (14 APRIL 2013)
Sir Alex's men made short work of silencing whispers of a 'title wobble' with an assured display in the Potteries. Six days after suffering derby defeat, the Reds were back in our stride thanks to Carrick's early strike and van Persie's calm penalty. Nerves, what nerves? Any concerns among United's noisy travelling horde were eased after just four minutes when Carrick became United's 18th different league scorer of the season thanks to a toe-poked finish past Asmir Begovic after Stoke failed to clear van Persie's corner. The Dutchman had gone 10 games without a goal but that 'drought' was ended in clinical fashion from 12 yards just after the hour. He coolly slotted home the spot-kick his nifty footwork had won moments earlier and his celebration – running to the dugouts to embrace his manager – showed the joy and relief of sealing the win and ending his wait for a goal. "He nearly killed me," said Sir Alex. "He forgets I'm 71! But this was a big one coming on the back of the City defeat and it was essential for us in terms of standing up and being counted. Everyone did a great job."
This feature first appeared in United Review.