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By Sonia Oxley
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - A large part of this year's Premier League title was settled at the end of last season when Manchester United's horror at losing out on goal difference to neighbours Manchester City turned into a ruthless pursuit of records, goals and a 20th league crown.
Manager Alex Ferguson vowed his team would never again miss out because they had not scored enough goals and swiftly brought in prolific striker Robin van Persie to make absolutely sure.
"The only thing I said to them at the start of the season was make sure we do not lose on goal difference again," Ferguson, celebrating his and the club's 13th Premier League title on Monday, told the club's in-house TV channel MUTV.
"That was the first time we had ever lost on goal difference. That to me was the challenge - that goal difference must be better than what they've got across the road (at City)."
His words had the desired effect as United have so far notched 78 league goals, compared to City's 59, with almost a third (24) coming from Van Persie. With 35 conceded, they have let in five more than City but the goals for easily compensate.
A 3-0 win at home to Aston Villa on Monday, with their Dutch striker netting a hat-trick, secured the championship with four games to spare to ensure there would be no repeat of last season's last-gasp heartbreak.
"After what happened last season there's a lot of teams in the country that would have melted ... but not us bunch, they did what Manchester United expect of them and raised the bar," Ferguson said.
"It's a marvellous performance, 84 points, four games left, it's fantastic."
As a man who says he never looks back, only forward, there will be only one thing on his mind over the coming weeks - the record points tally of 95 set by Chelsea in 2004-05 which United can beat by a point if they win all their remaining matches.
Beyond that, the focus will shift to next season with the Scot confident there is even better to come from a squad that has critics divided when considering how it measures up to others like the 1999 treble winners or 1994 double winners.
"There's a lot of youth in the team, it's a team that can stay together for a long time and hopefully they do and Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand, the old codgers, still can carry on," Ferguson said.
"I'm really happy with the squad, really delighted, they are a good bunch of professionals, of human beings. There is no reason why we can't go on and improve for next year."
Giggs, who has extended his contract to play next season when he will turn 40, is still a part of Ferguson's plan which is justified by performances such as Monday's where he provided the assist for Van Persie's second-minute opener.
"He's a unique freak," Ferguson said of the midfielder, who has featured in all of the 13 Premier League title wins and has scored in every Premier League season. "He'll play for another two years, trust me."
Ferguson's greatest praise this season was reserved for Dutch striker Van Persie who has made all the difference and whom City have been able to only watch with envy having missed out on his signature.
"He's been unbelievable," the manager said. "He has to take a lot of the credit, his goals tell you that. His performance level will tell you that (but) I'm sure Robin will be saying what a great bunch of players he's got with him."
(Reporting by Sonia Oxley; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)