Of all the ways a footballer can endear himself to supporters, one of the very best is to score a decisive goal or two against hated rivals. Thus was Diego Forlan transformed from figure of fun to cult figure one Saturday morning at Anfield a year ago, scoring twice to put the skids under a Liverpool side who had shot to the top of the Premiership. Within a week the points had helped put United back in front of the old enemy - where they remained for the rest of the season - and the artist formerly known as Diego Forlorn had been immortalised in song:
"He comes from Uruguay,
He made the Scousers cry..."
Last Wednesday at Old Trafford, it was the blue-nosed half of Glasgow crying in their heavy as Forlan's superbly poised volley undermined Rangers' hopes of making so much as a domestic dispute of the so-called Battle of Britain. That was his fourth goal in successive games and before half-time, he had turned from rebuking Cristiano Ronaldo for an overhit cross just in time to rattle the bar and set up Ruud van Nistelrooy to end the normally prolific Dutchman's little lean spell; when Van Nistelrooy added a third, it was clear that a genuine partnership now existed some 22 months after Sir Alex Ferguson first tried it.
While not deterring him from spending anything up to £20m of last summer's transfer profits on another goalscorer after Christmas, that is a huge bonus in the meantime for the manager, who has previously tended to rely on a 4-4-1-1 system of split strikers, with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer playing just off Van Nistelrooy. The latter now finds he is not automatically the target-man for every attack, and while no United player keen to remain at Old Trafford ever dares to question the manager's tactics, he appears to welcome the change, declaring afterwards: "I think it can work into a great partnership. If you see Diego's qualities and my qualities they can adapt together. It does take time but you can see things going on on the pitch and we can do well together.
"Diego is on an excellent run, with some very important goals. It is great to see that he is doing so well because he had a hard time at the beginning of the season when he didn't play much. Then all of a sudden he was asked to play and it is not easy to perform straightaway. But he has got his rhythm and confidence and he is of great value to us."
The amiable Forlan, who did not score in his first 26 appearances before finally knocking in a penalty against Maccabi Haifa in September last year, added: "I trained hard and worked on finishing with the coaches. And when the manager decided to put me in [this season], I just tried to play well and score goals."
Had Van Nistelrooy gone 26 games without one after joining United, he would doubtless have been suicidal. In fact, he netted on his debut against Liverpool in the Community Shield, added two more against Fulham in his first Premiership game and went on to total 80 in two seasons, causing Ferguson to predict: "We could be unveiling a statue of him one day."
The recent run of four games without a goal would nevertheless hardly have been worthy of mention for any other player. When Van Nistelrooy, a proficient English speaker, was asked about this "famine" after the Rangers game, he genuinely did not know what the word meant - presumably because he had never had cause in his career to employ it. Was he bothered then, by failing to score for this unheard of period of time? "Bothered is not the word. I'm not the type that worries. There is always the next game when it can change. You have to be ready for it and I was. That's what a striker is all about. Sometimes you miss a chance and then you score one out of the blue like I did tonight.
"When you are a striker people are going to look at your figures. I don't have a problem with people doing that. It is a fact that if I don't score goals it's news. I take that criticism because it is true and try to keep my game going and just hope for the next goal to come along. I wasn't even aware it was my worst run for United without a goal."
A sequence now ended with a total of 27 goals in 29 Champions' League games for the club, following eight in 11 for PSV Eindhoven, all of which puts him behind only Alfredo di Stefano (49), Eusebio (46), Raul (44) and Gerd Muller (36) in the history of the European Cup.
"I didn't feel really bad because I have played some decent games," he added. "It wasn't as if my touch wasn't right or I was playing really badly. But as a striker you are judged on scoring goals and I am too. Over the years, you gain experience in learning to deal with that. If you start worrying it is not going to help you, so it is the right thing to do to not concern yourself with it and eventually you come through it."
Nor would he rise to the bait of having been dropped by Holland's coach Dick Advocaat following a peeved reaction to being substituted by Pierre van Hooijdonk against the Czech Republic in September. Advocaat was at Old Trafford on Wednesday, when the former United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was hardly alone in thinking: "If Ruud can't get into the Dutch side, they must have some strikers. He's proved a point to himself and the manager."
So, in his own less spectacular way, has Forlan, who Ferguson has promised will play against Liverpool this afternoon. Another crying game? United will hardly contemplate resting Van Nistelrooy for a match of this magnitude, so whether or not Ronaldo stays in the team as well as Giggs, they will be arriving on Merseyside prepared to play their part in what could be one of the most adventurous encounters between the sides for years.Reuse content