It was a goal of such ruthless brilliance that with one swish of his left foot at 8.13pm on Monday night, Robin Van Persie settled the argument once and for all for Manchester United, champions for the 20th time.
The best team in the league? Undoubtedly. The outstanding player of the season? It was hard to argue against Van Persie having watched him score what will surely be the goal of the season last night, a strike of such simple breathtaking geometry that any side would have been hard pushed to defend against it, let alone this over-awed young Aston Villa team.
The league season is an examination of a club’s credentials over the course of 38 games but sometimes it takes just a couple of seconds to define that season. Those couple of seconds were surely those that it took for Wayne Rooney’s long ball from inside his own half to drop out of the air, over the shoulder of Van Persie and for him to drive it past Brad Guzan with that sublime left foot.
He has had a period this season, largely last month, when the goals dried up, one that coincided, unfortunately for United, with their Champions League quarter-final defeat against Real Madrid. There have been others, like Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez, Sunday’s behaviour excepted, who have contributed just as much to their own clubs’ seasons but neither of them will be going home with a league winners’ medal on 19 May.
In spite of the fact that they have sealed the league title with four games to play, this is not a great United team in comparison to some of their illustrious predecessors, although last night in the first half, this was a great United performance. And, in further mitigation, in Van Persie this United team have a player who compares with every great individual of the Sir Alex Ferguson era and beyond.
He could probably do without having to return to the Emirates on Sunday for the first time, on an occasion when his former Arsenal team-mates will presumably be expected to form a guard of honour for the new champions, another tradition the origins of which no-one is sure of. The 24 goals in the league Van Persie have scored are just one off being one for every millions pounds United paid for him in the summer. Given football’s peculiar cruelty, you expect No 25 to arrive on Sunday.
As United’s supporters welcomed the 38th trophy of Ferguson’s reign, it was more bad news for Villa whose goal difference is now four worse than that of Wigan Athletic, the team three points behind them in 18th position. They were never in this game and their survival continues on Monday with the visit of Sunderland, a game they dare not lose.
It shaped up to be a brutal experience for Paul Lambert’s young team, vulnerable at the best of times but caught last night one of those occasions when Manchester United have traditionally found their A-game and resolutely refused to spare the opposition.
It looked that way in the first two minutes when Van Persie scored the first and United poured forward against a Villa side that included three brought up at the club’s academy and a further three signed from Football League clubs last summer. It has not been often that United turned the dial up this season but in those early stages they were irresistible.
The first goal was a masterpiece as well. There was Rooney’s ball out to Antonio Valencia, perhaps marginally offside on the right wing. He cut in and passed back to Rafael Da Silva whose ball to the back post looked too lofted and slow but one touch from Giggs turned it into a perfectly judged cut-back across the goal that Van Persie passed into the net.
At that point it looked bleak for Villa but then this night was not really about them. One minute after his first goal, Van Persie volleyed another chance over the bar. There was a header back from the Dutch striker to Giggs that Ron Vlaar managed to get a foot in to clear. Rafael hit the post. If anything, Villa did well to get away with just one goal conceded in the first ten minutes.
Before the second goal arrived there was a break from Villa when Christian Benteke deceived Jonny Evans with a turn on the halfway line and played in Andreas Weimann. He got the ball back just inside the United area. The Belgian striker is such a talent – albeit one with plenty of rough edges – and that was evident in that moment when he failed to hit the target.
Then that came that breathtaking second, a goal of such exquisite quality that in many respects it took the pain out of the game for Villa. No-one could be expected to compete with a player on this kind of form. Having run half the length of the pitch to celebrate, Van Persie made a point of seeking out his provider, Rooney, and lifting him off the ground in thanks. He seemed to be making a point about something.
The hat-trick was completed in the 33rd minute and involved another assist from Giggs, collecting the twelfth Premier League title of his career. There was a brilliant pass from Shinji Kagawa into the left channel which Giggs ran onto, carrying the ball into the area and trying to anticipate Van Persie’s movement. The pass was slightly behind Van Persie but, no matter, he took the ball around Guzan and curled it in off the post.
The first half blitz slowed to a second half of casual dominance and celebration in the stands for United. Rooney found himself playing what looked unmistakeably like a holding midfield role for much of it before he left to a standing ovation on 72 minutes to be replaced by Danny Welbeck. There was a greeting from Ferguson on the touchline as he passed his manager on the way to the bench.
Kagawa might have scored a fourth when he switched the ball to his left foot on 77 minutes and only had Guzan to beat but instead he missed the target. As the final whistle approached the stands were festooned by thousands of flashes on thousands of cameras waiting to capture the moment of victory. For all the struggles with new challengers, these remain golden years at Old Trafford and for title No 20 there is a new hero too.
Goals: Manchester United: Van Persie 2, 13, 33.
Substitutions: Manchester United Welbeck (Rooney, 72). Aston Villa El Ahmadi (N’Zogbia, h-t), Clark (Bennett, 80).
Bookings: Manchester United Evra.
Man of the match Van Persie.
Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Manchester United 52%. Aston Villa
48%. Attempts on target: Manchester United 5. Aston Villa 5.
Referee A Taylor (Greater Manchester).