Arsenal 2 (Van Persie 16, 56) Wolves 0
Blackburn’s 1994/5 Premiership triumph signalled the end of the variety of English champions, and the start of a ten year period in which only Arsenal or United lifted the trophy, ended only when an Abramovich-powered Chelsea arrived to turn the title battle into a triumvirate. Since then, Chelsea have replaced us as perennial challengers, with each of our efforts ended at least a month before the honours are handed out. Not since 2005 have we finished above either of our main rivals.
At the start of this campaign, all the talk was of Man City, and how they would force us out of the top four, initiating a financially gargantuan battle for power with Chelsea. United might hang on to their coattails, but Arsenal and Liverpool were finished. The verdict was unanimous.
No longer. United’s victory in the Manchester derby yesterday lunchtime put them eight points ahead of their city rivals with a game in hand, delaying their inevitable rise for another season, while Chelsea are already so far back that they are reliant on massive collapses from teams rolling into ominous form. That only leaves us, and after last week’s insanity at Newcastle, a win over Wolves was vital not only to keep in touch, but to draw a line over those events and move on. And move on we did, with one of the most one-sided games you’ll ever see – even Mick McCarthy admitted that the scoreline flattered his side, who failed to force Szczesny into a single save. He’ll be busier against Barcelona, no doubt.
Title winning sides generally need a spearhead, and it is the lack of one that has given United’s rivals hope- a firing Rooney couldn’t give them the record title they craved last season, and with his form so poor this time around they’ve been scraping wins with a series of unconvincing performances. But they keep winning, and sooner or later you have to accept that their mental strength outweighs their technical limitations – make no mistake about it, this is one of the weakest United teams in years. But they know how to win.
We have our spearhead back. Van Persie’s brace takes his tally to eleven goals in 2011, ten in his last seven games, and gives us a glimpse of what might have been over the past few years had he not been so crippled by injuries. It is easy to forget that at the beginning of last season, all the talk was whether we’d reach the hundred goal mark, and he was the foremost striker in the country. One injury in an international friendly, and everything changed. All we can hope is that he stays fit for the next three months – if he does, a title tilt is a realistic prospect.
As for the game itself, it bore similarities with the win over Wigan a few weeks ago – a dominant display not turning into a rout because the opposition keeper was on fire. For Ali Al-Habsi that day, read Wayne Hennessey yesterday. The Wolves keeper was having a blinder, denying Van Persie and Walcott with a string of terrific saves. But it mattered not – Djourou was controlling the defence and it always seemed that it wouldn’t require a cricket score for the game to be put to bed. With Van Persie enjoying a rich scoring vein, the goals were always likely to come.
Both was superb efforts for different reasons. The first, a spinning volley with his weaker foot, was an instinctive finish from a striker brimming with confidence. I can’t think of many of our squad capable of such a finish with their wrong foot – Cesc and Arshavin perhaps the only two. The second was a stunning counter attack – first time sweeping passes from our own penalty area to Van Persie again, who steadied himself before firing home. The game was won.
It is easy to say that it was perfect preparation for Barcelona, but that would undermine the importance of the match itself. United are four points clear – if that gap gets much wider they will be difficult to catch. But the longer we stay in touch, the more the Emirates clash becomes a potential decider, or at the very least a major milestone. We’ve had too few of those in recent years.
Of course, attention now turns away from the league – our next game, against Stoke, is ten days away. Before then, we’ve got the trip to Orient in the FA Cup, and Barcelona’s midweek arrival. More on that over the coming days.
For now, enjoy the look of the table. We’re in touch, the squad is closer to fitness than I can remember at this stage in recent seasons, and plenty of them are in form. The sky’s the limit.