LONDON (Reuters) - Manchester United faces were wreathed in smiles as they finished the Premier League season at Old Trafford just as they had hoped — as champions.
Crowned the previous weekend and treated to a guard of honour by deposed champions Chelsea in midweek, United could afford to lose 1-0 to West Ham United on Sunday and still have manager Alex Ferguson describe it “a fantastic occasion.”
The result, which secured West Ham’s survival, was only United’s fifth defeat in a season which they ended with 89 points, six more than second-placed Chelsea.
As an added bonus, United were widely credited with having played the best football — an accolade never given in the same measure to Chelsea last term.
Portugal winger Cristiano Ronaldo, who started as a hate figure for many after his World Cup spat with United team mate Wayne Rooney, was the architect of both the results and the swashbuckling style.
From the trademark step-overs that terrorised defenders to the finishing which has brought him 23 goals in all competitions, Ronaldo’s improvement since 2006 has been a revelation.
Many doubted he would even stay at United after his protests in England’s World Cup quarter-final defeat by Portugal were seen as contributing to Rooney’s red card for stamping.
Instead, he has had his best season yet, earning three Footballer of the Year awards, a championship medal and the chance of FA Cup glory in Saturday’s final with Chelsea at Wembley.
His rapport with Rooney, the subject of pre-season prophecies of daggers drawn at United’s Carrington training ground, was an unqualified success.
Rooney’s matching 23 goals were another very big part of United’s season, along with the less glamorous but no less important contribution from the defenders.
The defence marshalled by Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic helped win the title — and it was the same depleted department that lost it for Chelsea.
That the Blues even had a chance was down to Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba, who finished as the Premier League’s top scorer with 20 goals and has scored 32 in total.
His efforts did much to offset the loss of long-term injury victim Joe Cole, the often-sidelined Arjen Robben and the minimal impact of 30-million-pound newcomer Andriy Shevchenko.
The problems surfaced mid-season as a long-term injury to goalkeeper Petr Cech, who suffered a fractured skull, and back surgery for skipper John Terry.
“Everybody knows at the moment Chelsea cannot defend. I am the first person to know that,” coach Jose Mourinho said after a 2-2 home derby draw with Fulham on Dec 30.
“I need the best goalkeeper in the world back. I need the best central defender in the world back.”
The absences exposed a pre-season gamble of letting William Gallas go to Arsenal in a cash-swap for Ashley Cole and selling fellow centre half Robert Huth to Middlesbrough.
They also led to a difference of opinion between Mourinho and Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, who was not ready to recruit in the January transfer window.
That has led to prolonged speculation over Mourinho’s future at the club, despite a League Cup final win over Arsenal and Saturday’s date with United.
Outside the two-horse title race, Liverpool and Arsenal both paid the price for slow starts.
Liverpool, with a Champions League final against AC Milan on May 23 in Athens, won only four of their opening 10 games and their attack was never on a par with United or Chelsea.
Just one of their players, Dutchman Dirk Kuyt, was in the leading 21 league scorers for the season — with 12 goals.
Arsenal’s ambitions suffered a double whammy.
The move to the Emirates Stadium proved a handicap on the pitch while the loss of talismanic striker Thierry Henry and Dutch forward Robin van Persie to long-term injuries were even worse.
Further back, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Bolton Wanderers booked UEFA Cup places for next season, when Watford, Charlton Athletic and Sheffield United will be in the second division.