United emerged from dark winter to take title

Paul Scholes (left) and Nistelrooy together scored 63 goals in the league. — Pic. ALEX LIVESEY/GETTY IMAGES-Paul Scholes (left) and Nistelrooy together scored 63 goals in the league. — Pic. ALEX LIVESEY/GETTY IMAGES

MANCHESTER UNITED secured the premier league title on the back of Ruud van Nistelrooy's goals in an irresistible late surge but it was in the dark days of winter that Alex Ferguson's team showed real championship qualities.

The statistics show 43 goals for the Dutch striker, including 12 in the last seven league games, another 20 for midfielder Paul Scholes and an unbeaten run that brought United 14 wins and three draws since Christmas.

That form, combined with Arsenal running out of steam, produced a 16-point swing in two months from early March and is the obvious reason for the club's eighth premier league crown in 11 seasons.

However, even that remarkable turnaround would not have been enough had United not showed all their best fighting qualities when they were most needed.

Outplayed and beaten 3-1 by Manchester City at Maine Road on November 9, United's first derby defeat in 14 years was greeted as evidence that Ferguson and his team were fading forces.

United dropped to fifth in the league and were immediately written off as title contenders.

Things did not look good. Captain Roy Keane was out for a long spell after undergoing hip surgery while David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Nicky Butt and others missed too many games through injury.

Suddenly, the richest club in the world were going into matches with untried reserves on the bench as Ferguson's squad frayed at the seams.

Incredibly, given the firepower on show from Van Nistelrooy and Scholes in recent weeks, United's toothless attack was also criticised as they mustered just 17 goals in their first 13 league games.

Ferguson reacted to the derby defeat and the 1-1 draw with lowly West Ham that followed by admonishing his players and demanding a better attitude.

He received the response he desired — but it came from some unlikely sources.

Phil Neville, no longer required as a full back following the emergence of John O'Shea, re-invented himself as Keane's understudy in the battling midfield anchor role.

Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan, who had earned a reputation as the international striker who never looked remotely close to scoring, suddenly started finding the net.

South African midfielder Quinton Fortune was another to emerge from the shadows with some mature, committed displays as United roared back with season-saving victories over their main rivals — Newcastle United, Liverpool and Arsenal — in a golden fortnight.

There was a blip at the end of the year when, despite the return of most of the big names, United lost to Blackburn and Middlesbrough, that 3-1 Riverside Stadium reverse on December 26 proving to be their last in the league was just a trip to Everton to come.

However, Arsenal continued to cruise along at the top and by March 2, the day United lost the League Cup final to Liverpool, the defending champions had opened an eight-point lead.

Three weeks later the gap was down to two and Arsenal were reeling after their Champions League exit.

United's own European campaign, so impressive in the group stages, came to grief against Real Madrid in April but instead of becoming overwhelmed by gloom, Ferguson and his players contrived to take heart from the fact that they were beaten by a great team.

They responded to their reverse against the Spaniards by thrashing Newcastle 6-2 to knock Bobby Robson's side out of the championship race before securing the 2-2 draw at Highbury that appeared to rubber-stamp the swing of the title northwards.

After the fireworks of the return against Real they got back to basics with solid wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Charlton Athletic — just as Arsenal were blowing it against Bolton Wanderers and Leeds United — and suddenly the title was United's with a game to spare.