Chelsea can mathematically overtake them but this was the day the London club stopped doing the sums
The victory walk began from just inside the pitch. Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to pick out his family first, waving to a stand that was almost shaking in its joy. Then the Manchester United manager strode along the touchline, before stopping in front of the Stretford End and doing something he has never done before. His was a theatrical bow, throwing his arms high into the air before almost touching the turf. He did it twice – and the crowd roared its approval.
This was the unique sense of euphoria that comes from overtaking Liverpool with a record 19th league title and the crowd recognised the moment. It had been an epic, lyrical match but now they could rejoice for real. "Are you watching Merseyside?" they sang.
Mathematically, Chelsea can still overtake them, but this was the day the London club stopped doing the sums. All United need now is a solitary point from their last two games against Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool. "Don't even mention Devon Loch," Ferguson said afterwards, and it was a sunrise of a smile crossing his face. "My dad backed that horse, you know."
They did it in style. At times this season, by Ferguson's own admission, United have justified what Didier Deschamps said about them lacking the "fantasy" of old. It has become the mantra to their season, the default setting for their critics every time they have won without thrilling. What you come to realise is that United's audience is always the hardest to please.
But what football they played here. It was one of the more exhilarating, affirmative and brutal displays imaginable and, by the final whistle, it felt almost freakish that there was only one goal between the sides. Everything clicked. It was bewitching stuff and, as Ferguson took his bow and the decibel levels soared, Old Trafford reminded us why, half a century ago, a young Bobby Charlton ventured his opinion that walking out at this stadium, with the four vertiginous stands, all packed, and the sound of the crowd, felt like playing in a "theatre of dreams".
Against Schalke last Wednesday it had felt strange to witness a European Cup semi-final with the volume turned so low. The people in charge of the music put out a medley of jingly-jangly United-themed pop songs and, worse, pumped out crowd noise through the speakers. But here, as Old Trafford revelled in of one of the club's great 21st-century moments, there was the hard evidence that the best atmospheres are made, not contrived, and that there really is no counterpart for the sound of a football crowd baying its delight.
There were some anxious moments but, in truth, United's superiority was barely reflected in the scoreline. For the most part, they dismantled their opponents. They played with spirit and togetherness. They were bright and inventive, full of hard running. They all wanted the ball. They also seemed far more pumped up than their opponents. Never before has Old Trafford witnessed Edwin van der Sar punching the air after making a save.
The half-time whistle had the effect of smelling salts for Chelsea. Their ordeal had begun before any of the players in blue had even a scuff of grass on their shorts. It was 36 seconds, to be precise, when Park Ji-sung played the pass that split open the visiting defence. What we know by now is that Javier Hernández, through on goal, is the most lethal one-against-one forward in the English game. He has 20 goals in his debut season and provides Exhibit A when it comes to the argument about how ludicrous it is that the player-of-the-season awards are decided in March.
Ferguson made the point that United could have scored six in either half. Park may just have played the greatest game of his life. Antonio Valencia tormented Ashley Cole far more than Cristiano Ronaldo ever used to. Ryan Giggs was imperious. Nemanja Vidic negated the threat of Didier Drogba. Michael Carrick has reinvented himself. Ditto Wayne Rooney, playing once again like the player of old, a constant menace. Rooney will not care to remember the first two-thirds of this season but the careworn guy of last autumn has re-established himself as one of the world's authentic superstars – and gives the impression it is where he wants to stay.
It has been one day short of a year since that cold, metallic piece of job satisfaction otherwise known as the Premier League trophy last resided at Old Trafford. Chelsea, 15 points behind at the start of March, have now had their grip released, finger by finger. And that will hurt Liverpool just as badly.