Millwall see Real side of Van Nistelrooy

United pray they have not witnessed Dutch star's last goals
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The Independent Football

If he is off to become a galactico, as rumoured, Ruud van Nistelrooy gave Manchester United a robust parting present, on top of the £35m they might make from Real Madrid.

His second-half goals at the Millennium Stadium, one a penalty struck high into the net in a fashion which brooks no argument, and certainly no hope of glory from the goalkeeper, and the second strike one of his poaching specials set the seal on his team's superiority and brought them something the supporters have become accustomed to, but seen nothing of previously this season - a trophy. The man-of-the-match award, made by the England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, duly followed.

Despite a stated intention to close him down, and possibly inflict other indignities, Millwall found the job simply too much to handle. Van Nistelrooy is the perfect predator, biding his time, lulling folk and then striking. The lesson Millwall learned yesterday was a costly one.

For the biggest day in their 119-year history Millwall pinned much hope on their own striker Neil Harris, the fairytale hero who had come back from testicular cancer to reclaim his place in the team and restart his career. Harris had attacked his illness with commendable verve and bravery, saying: "It's a battle but you can overcome it.''

What he was unable to overcome yesterday was the superior quality of the opposition's football. These days Premiership v First Division is no longer likely to provide a calamitous upset. Harris' comment that his medical case "might act as a shining light to show that if you work hard there are rewards at the end'' did not come true this time.

Presumably on the basis that this was a day to remember, win or lose, many Millwall supporters had taken the expensive option, a ride down the M4 to Cardiff in those Cadillac stretch limousines the length of a bendy bus. Darren Ward was in a mark-making mood too. The defender might resemble a Seventies player with blond mullet but he was talking 21st-century stuff before the match about what he had in mind for United, the club he supported as a boy.

Dispensing with the niceties the way any Welsh words don't bother with vowels, Ward ensured that he was, as they say in the record books, "swift into the tackle'' whenever United, and in particular Van Nistelrooy, threatened the wellbeing of Millwall's goal. In United's first incursion it was Ward's out-thrust boot which got to the ball before the Dutchman could even consider bringing it under control. Still, Ward is entitled to be match-tough and aware, having ended the season as Millwall's only ever-present in 53 League and cup games.

However, more than quickness off the mark is needed when it comes to Van Nistelrooy-watching, as was shown immediately afterwards as he defied all plans to close him down, heading a right-wing cross past an upright.

Harris, in contrast, was slower to impress. Perhaps it was nerves on the big occasion, but he lost control amateurishly near the corner flag. There was, though, a commendable willingness to drop deep to help out or claim possession.

The Dutchman recovered from a flying elbow to the face administered by the no-nonsense Dennis Wise to cause mayhem with a glorious headed flick, which confounded Ward and left Ronaldo with the chance to score, a chance foiled by Ward's recovery and goal-line clearance.

The frustrations grew for Millwall as United assumed command in the second half and that frustration was nowhere more clearly shown than in Harris' silly hack at Tim Howard when the United keeper beat him to a cross and was preparing to clear up-field. The referee, Jeff Winter, spotted it and deemed a quiet word appropriate, a sensible decision.

So was the penalty award when David Livermore brought down Ryan Giggs. Spot-kicks are no longer a "gimme'' these days at Old Trafford, and Van Nistelrooy has contrived to miss important ones. Not this time. Perhaps learning from German footballers who smash their big-match spot-kicks hard and high, he did just that and Andy Marshall, who had pulled off an incredible first-half save from Roy Keane, stood no chance whatsoever.

The removal of Harris in the 74th minute preceded Van Nistelrooy's second strike, again laid on by Giggs, this time closing in from the left to roll the invitation into the six-yard box. The perfect seal had been set on a flawed season.

Van Nistelrooy's brilliance will have been noted in Madrid. If the Dutchman does go, the move will sadden all those fans who bellowed "Rooooood'' to their favourite yesterday. As galacticos go, Ruud is pretty special, as Millwall found out.