Robin van Persie scored a first-half hat-trick as Manchester United demolished Aston Villa to win their 20th league title with four matches left. The Dutchman opened the scoring after 90 seconds before netting a superb over-the-shoulder volley 11 minutes later.
The summer signing from Arsenal fired home a third just after the half-hour mark to move on to 24 goals for the Premier League season, with only Luis Suarez (23) in close attendance. That means Van Persie is likely to win the Golden Boot ahead of the Liverpool striker, who is likely to be suspended for at least three matches after admitting biting an opponent.
The victory also gives Sir Alex Ferguson’s side an unassailable 16-point lead over last season’s champions Manchester City, who have five games remaining. It is Fergie’s 13th league crown for the club, a remarkable feat given they have been outspent by the likes of City and Chelsea in recent seasons.
Villa, meanwhile, are fully embroiled in a relegation scrap, three points clear of the drop zone, with 18th-placed Wigan Athletic boasting one game in hand and a superior goal difference. Had Villa claimed an unlikely victory at Old Trafford, not only would they have spoiled the United party but rivals QPR and Reading would have been relegated.
As it stands both blue-and-white striped clubs were granted a stay of execution, but on this showing Villa have much work to do if they are to avoid going down with them. This season Villa have often been good going forward but poor at the back, with the thrilling 3-2 defeat to United at Villa Park a fine example. On Monday night they were slightly below par in attack – Christian Benteke not having his best game, as highlighted when he fired over from close range at 1-0 – but just as dreadful in defence.
Usually Brad Guzan is a rock between the sticks, but for the first goal he stood uncharacteristically frozen to his line as crosses from Rafael and Ryan Giggs allowed Van Persie a simple finish.
That move was started by a raking crossfield pass from Wayne Rooney, playing deep in midfield, and he was involved again as his lofted ball from halfway was met by Van Persie, who had spun away from the defence with a clever diagonal run before letting the ball drop over his shoulder for a clinical volley from the edge of the box. In between those goals United had threatened to run up a cricket score as Van Persie blasted over, Rafael hit the post, while Ron Vlaar denied Shinji Kagawa a tap-in.
Villa had a great chance too, Benteke’s aforementioned miss a frustrating moment after excellent build-up play by Andreas Weimann. But it was all United and, after Van Persie had doubled the lead, they sat back and absorbed a decent spell of Villa pressure, looking for the inevitable counter-attack that would tear the visitors’ wet-eared defence to pieces.
It came on 33 minutes when, following a Villa corner, Giggs showed an age-defying turn of pace to skip down the left. Villa’s high line had left them exposed, and with a lack of positional awareness at epidemic levels in the Midlands, it was all too easy for the veteran winger to pick out Van Persie, who had both the time and nerves to pick his finish. The second half was something of an exhibition, as United allowed Villa to test them defensively, with Van Persie showing another side to his game with a goal-line clearance from a Weimann header.
Benteke also forced a good stop from De Gea but around about the hour mark United snapped back into action as Rooney had one shot blocked before sending another over the bar, while Jonny Evans – starting in place of the injured Nemanja Vidic – was close to backheeling in from a corner.
Villa had returned to the counter attack, one of which saw Karim El Ahmadi’s swerving long-range effort tipped over by De Gea. But United were still the more likely, and Kagawa really should have made it four when he blasted over after finding himself with just a stranded Guzan to beat.
The last quarter-hour was something of a procession as the home fans unified their singing and United passed the ball around with casual intent. The banners were out, the flags on sale and United celebrated extending their record title haul, while Villa lick their wounds ahead of an almighty relegation battle.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Robin van Persie (Manchester United) – Scored the quickest Premier League hat-trick in nine years to make it five goals in three matches at this crucial stage of the year. They said his goals would give United the title, and they did quite literally.