Believe it or not, there was once a time, before the English Premier League (EPL) was created, when the mighty Manchester United struggled to land the top prize in English soccer. In the 1966/67 season, manager Matt Busby’s side, inspired by his ‘Holy Trinity’ of Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton, won their seventh title, but it would then take until the first season of the EPL, in 1992/93, for United to end their drought (the Premier League was a break away from the Football League). Since then, United have been unstoppable, with manager Sir Alex Ferguson – who has been in charge since 1986 – presiding over 13 titles in the EPL era, with the latest coming on Monday night after a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Aston Villa (Ferguson hailed one of Robin van Persie’s hat-trick of goals as the “goal of the century.”) Let’s look back on five moments which helped wrest the title back from United’s local rivals, Manchester City, who had dramatically won the title on goal difference on the last day of last season.
1. Everton 1-0 Manchester United, Aug. 20
It may seem strange to start with a defeat but the 1-0 loss at Everton on the opening round of games was a wake up call. United were outthought and outfought by the opposition, who won the game through a Marouane Fellaini header. The Belgian international gave United’s makeshift defense a torrid time while Ferguson’s major summer signing, the £24m ($36.5m) Robin van Persie, was only used as a second-half substitute and couldn’t make his mark. But he would soon come good, as did his teammates. United responded to the setback by winning 25 of their next 29 games.
2. Southampton 2-3 Man Utd, Sep. 2
Speaking of van Persie, his hat-trick at Southampton didn’t just endear him to his new supporters, but salvaged what looked like being a damaging defeat and turned it into a valuable three points. Ten minutes into the second half, the Saints had regained the lead, going 2-1 up. But then the Dutchman equalized for a second time late on before heading a dramatic last-minute winner to ensure that Ferguson was victorious in his 1,000th league match in charge of United (take off a zero and van Persie scored his 100th Premier League goal in this game). The away supporters celebrated as if their team had won the league.
3. Chelsea 2-3 Man Utd, Oct. 28
In late October, Chelsea held a four point lead over United at the top of the standings and could have gone seven ahead had the London side won this home game. But within 12 minutes, the opposition raced into a two goal lead, with van Persie contributing his seventh league goal of the season. But Juan Mata’s stunning free kick just before half time and an equalizer early in the second half by Ramires meant the game was in the balance. Yet with 15 minutes to play, just after Chelsea had two men sent off, United’s Mexican striker, Javier Hernandez, tucked in the decisive goal from close range, though Chelsea’s then manager, Roberto Di Matteo, claimed the attacker was offside. It was Chelsea’s first defeat of the season and a clear show of intent from United that they meant business.
4. Man City 2-3 Man Utd, Dec. 9
Fast forward to early December, and it was now United who were atop the standings. A derby match at reigning champions Manchester City had plenty at stake: a win for City would put both sides level on points while a United victory would open up a six point lead. The game had all the best – and worst – attributes of a local derby: the tackles flew in, the energy levels never dipped and many goals were scored. The first two were courtesy of United’s Wayne Rooney, who, by his own high standards, hasn’t had the greatest of seasons. But he put his side firmly in control at the break. Back came City with Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta, who made it 2-2 with five minutes to play. But in the last minute – guess who? – van Persie popped up with a deflected free kick to win the game. It was arguably doubly damaging for City’s manager Roberto Mancini, who tried to sign the striker from Arsenal last summer. The end of the match was spoiled by United’s Rio Ferdinand suffering a cut eye as he appeared to be struck by an object while City’s goalkeeper Joe Hart restrained a pitch invader who headed for Ferdinand. As the dust settled, United were firm favorites to regain the title.
5. Sunderland 0-1 Man Utd, Mar. 30
At the end of the 2011/12 season, United went to Sunderland on the final day and won 1-0. When the final whistle blew, they thought they had won the title as Manchester City were making an almighty mess of a winnable home game against Queens Park Rangers. But two goals in injury time secured a first EPL title for City and Sunderland’s fans mocked United’s players and supporters. Nearly a year later, in late March 2013, the teams met again, and the score was the same (a Titus Bramble own goal gifted United the win). But the facts were that United now had a 15-point lead over City at the top of the standings, and hadn’t conceded a goal in some 627 minutes. Even though City would beat United in the return derby fixture in April, it would prove to be a momentary blip in a triumphant season for United. The Red Devils will lift their 20th league title on May 12 after their game against Swansea City.