Ruud rises above the feud

Van the hat-trick man shrugs off controversy to close the gap on arch rivals Arsenal
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The Independent Football

Ruud van Nistelrooy just cannot help himself; he has to be the centre of attention. Last Sunday he clattered his potentially match-winning penalty kick against the crossbar in injury time and then found himself, for historical (and hysterical) reasons, the focal point of the post-match fracas that passed for an Arsenal celebration of a point gained at Old Trafford. Yesterday he took a more conventional route into the headlines with a hat-trick as United, inspired by the return of Paul Scholes, routed Leicester City 4-1 at the Walkers Stadium.

As United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, said: "Van Nistelrooy's name will always be in the newspapers because he is a great player. A hat-trick today and he could have scored six."

It was a stroll for the champions, at least until they made second-half substitutions, as Scholes, who appears to be over his hernia problem, set up the opener for Roy Keane - the Irishman's first goal in 18 months - and then Van Nistelrooy's first as his attempted shot fell kindly for the prolific striker. The Dutchman could afford to squander opportunities because he added his second from Rio Ferdinand's pass and completed his hat-trick soon after half-time when set up by a first-time pass from Eric Djemba-Djemba, who came on at half-time to give Keane a chance to rest. Scholes and Ryan Giggs followed Keane off as United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, sought to preserve his players for Tuesday's Champions' League match against VfB Stuttgart in Germany.

Leicester, as usual, worked hard and were rewarded when Frank Sinclair pulled a goal back after 73 minutes, heading in Muzzy Izzet's corner to deny Tim Howard a fourth successive clean sheet in United's goal.

Arsenal were unassailable at the top after beating Newcastle United 3-2 on Friday night, but Ferguson's side kept on their tail, as did Chelsea, who edged Aston Villa 1-0 at Stamford Bridge. Villa battled and, with Juan Sebastian Veron misfiring in midfield, they lived in hope until shortly before the interval when Thomas Sorensen parried Frank Lampard's cross and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink knocked in his sixth of the season. The problem with facing the new Chelsea is that they can have players of the quality of Hernan Crespo, Joe Cole and Claude Makelele on the bench, so their manager, Claudio Ranieri, can respond to any awkward circumstance, like being only 1-0 ahead. Cole was given his chance and almost created a second goal, but then Juan Pablo Angel might have equalised, so this was not the expected easy home win.

Ranieri admitted as much when he said: "I'm happy because I suffered a lot during the match. It's better to play badly and win than play well and lose. We're like a baby. We're crawling now. Sometimes we try to stand up but we're not ready yet. The pressure on the baby isn't good - but I'm his father and I'll take all the pressure."

That is no consolation for Villa, though, as the defeat left them in mid-table while their neighbours Birmingham City are enjoying the unaccustomed heights of fourth place. Steve Bruce's side are right behind the club where he earned his fame, United, after goals by Stephen Clemence and Stan Lazaridis earned them a 2-0 win over Portsmouth, another of the season's unexpectedly promising sides. Four wins and two draws mean the Blues have beaten their previous best start to the season 55 years ago. Bruce is not getting carried away. "It's lovely to be up there, but we have to be realistic because we're still capable of being one of those 12 or 13 clubs who could be sucked in towards the bottom."

Where they will, no doubt, find another of the Midlands clubs, Wolves, who looked like having something to celebrate after Alex Rae drove in a 30-yard shot to put them ahead at Bolton. Only their second goal of the League season looked like giving them a first win in the Premiership until Bolton stepped up the pressure late on and Kevin Davies claimed an equaliser.