Holding court with the media in the bowels of the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion after Holland had emerged unscathed from the Group of Death on Friday, Ruud van Nistelrooy took his English audience by surprise with the insistence that his winning goal against the Ivory Coast was the most important of his prolific career. The explanation for his verdict was based on the past, and a childhood spent longing for such glory on a World Cup stage, but it is equally true for his future.
The 29-year-old has taken to delivering a stock line about his Manchester United career whenever the subject is broached in Germany, which is regularly, and it suggests that he may still have one after all. "I have two years left on my contract," he repeated in Stuttgart. "If the situation changes I will find out about it, otherwise I will be going back to Manchester." But only to collect the belongings he left behind when he headed from the United team hotel to Manchester Airport on the final day of last season, having been unceremoniously dumped from the Premiership farewell against Charlton and Roy Keane's testimonial.
Van Nistelrooy knows his United career is over. He has realised, like so many before him, that to cross Sir Alex Ferguson is to discover that there is no way back. His comments may be interpreted as a veiled threat to United that he is prepared to sit on a lucrative contract for another two seasons but, in reality, the warning is that he will only go to a club of his choice and not, as has been suggested, for example, in part exchange for Lyon's imposing midfielder Mahamadou Diarra.
It is therefore imperative that the Dutch international prospers at this World Cup, that he exorcises the demons of his final months at Old Trafford and that he reminds the grandest teams in Europe that, at United's asking price of £10 million, he represents an astute acquisition. There was more to his emotional goal celebrations on Friday than the release of defying those critics who questioned his place in Marco van Basten's fluid team.
Van Nistelrooy said: "The season didn't end very well for me and I was happy to make a step towards the World Cup with this team. I prepared myself properly and I felt good, and I think my performance against the Ivory Coast showed that. The support we had was amazing, the stadium was completely orange, and the goal meant an awful lot to me. It was a big game, and my first World Cup goal, the biggest of my career. As a child, you dream about these things."
He added: "We are very pleased. From the group we were in, we couldn't think we were going to get through to the last 16 in two games. That is a great achievement."
Holland's victory ensured that Argentina were not the only team in Group C to announce their credentials in impressive fashion, and that the pressure will be off Van Nistelrooy and his orange company on Wednesday when they face the finest team in the tournament so far in what promises to be an absorbing contest in Frankfurt.
"We saw Argentina [beat Serbia] in the dressing room and we were very impressed," the striker revealed. "It does mean the Argentina game is less important now than if there had been everything to play for, but it is important to see where we are as a team. It is a big test for us."
After the Ivory Coast's exit, African journalists accused their coach, Henri Michel, of lacking adventure and his side of crumbling under pressure. Despite the Frenchman's preference for three forwards and the misfortune to be drawn in such a powerful group, the team failed their first test before a global audience.
However, Robin van Persie, who opened the scoring in Stutt-gart, said: "They play such fantastic football and I am a big fan of them. A few months ago we [Van Persie and his fellow Arsenal players Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué] were taking the piss out of each other, and it is a fantastic achievement that we won, but it is bad for the Ivory Coast and my Arsenal team-mates."Reuse content