Premier League

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Consistent Man United seals 20th title

Robin van Persie of Manchester United
Vane Persie's hat trick sealed Manchester United's Premier League title.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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In the crazy cauldron of the Barclays Premier League, with its dizzying forwards, overblown scandals, tricky midfielders, helter-skelter games, and hard-charging defenders, it was, in the end, the solid and sound and predictable team that won out.

But for all their humdrum wins through the year, Manchester United saved the fireworks for the clincher.

United won their 20th English title on Monday, their 13th in the Premier League era and manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure. A quick Robin van Persie hat-trick against Aston Villa – the second of which was a divine volley from the edge of the box plucked from mid-air and deposited behind the awestruck Brad Guzan before he could so much as blink – put the game out of reach with authority and finality. And if all three goals were shrouded in suspicions of offside, that wasn’t allowed to spoil the party.

Because United not only re-claimed the domestic title from their cross-town rivals Manchester City, but the Red Devils also avenged the Sky Blues’ last-second league-winning goal by Sergio Aguero last year, which left them standing empty-handed, mouths agape, robbed of the glory.

In a rollicking Sunday afternoon game, Manchester City had taken a daring lead against a superior Tottenham Hotspur but sunk without a trace in the second half, when the Spurs scored three handsome and unanswered goals. That put United within striking distance of the title. And a win over Villa put United 16 points ahead of City, who could no longer mathematically make up that gap in their five remaining games.

Whereas fiery City manager Roberto Mancini had been able to keep his circus-like squad in check last season, he wasn’t able to get the requisite results this time around. Looking like he aged about a decade in just the past year, the most combustible locker room in the sport got away from him this season. Mancini had no choice but to sell enfant terrible-cum-striker prodigy Mario Balotelli to AC Milan mid-season, and he wasn’t able to coax the stratospheric form out of playmakers David Silva and Samir Nasri that they had displayed last year. And that cost them too many goals at crucial junctures.

United were quite the opposite of their so-called “noisy neighbors” in that regard. Two years ago, when asked by this reporter what the secret to the longevity of his success was, Ferguson spoke of continuity, but also of knowing when to swap out a worn part for a new one. So before the season, United slotted Arsenal’s van Persie into its striker role and Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa into the space behind him, and in doing so acquired the makings of yet another championship side. Throughout the year, they kept the peace and stayed the course. No fuss, no drama. Just soccer. And that, believe it or not, made them unique in the 2012-13 edition of the Premier League.

It may well have been Ferguson’s easiest title. Because after they assumed first place in late fall, no challenger ever materialized. Defending champions City were inconsistent to the point of being erratic. Chelsea suffered through a second consecutive tumultuous year with yet another mid-season managerial firing. They got off to a hot start as zippy new midfielders Eden Hazard and Oscar combined well with Juan Mata, but their form fell off and then Roberto Di Matteo was sacked. His unpopular replacement Rafa Benitez installed the fourth new system in two years – Di Matteo really played with two – and Chelsea’s style grew muddled and largely ineffective.

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Tottenham Hotspur, for their abundance of talent, got off to a slow start and remained far too prone to slipping up against the smaller opponents to truly compete. Arsenal started the season so abysmally that they had capitulated any realistic aspirations to the title before the season had well and truly gotten underway and they had righted their ship. And Liverpool remained a shambles, even though progress was made under Brendan Rodgers, whose modern tactics showed signs of bearing fruit on some days.

There was only one real contender in the end, and United were far too seasoned at winning this sort of thing to screw it up. Not for a second year in a row, anyway. Only they were capable and deserving of winning it. So they did, without leaving any openings for anybody else to re-enter a race that had been decided already, like last year. This time around, no miracles could deprive them of their due. And thus United are champions for the 13th time in 21 years.

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