For once Sir Alex Ferguson was wrong about Ruud van Nistelrooy. Bemoaning the wasted opportunities at Portsmouth, a match for which the Dutchman was suspended, the Manchester United manager remarked: "Give Ruud four chances in a game and he'll take three of them."
Van Nistelrooy did have four chances against Sparta Prague and he took the lot. Scoring four was not an infrequent occurrence when English teams ventured into Europe but only if you were drawn early on against a club from Luxembourg or Ireland. Sparta Prague are no Waterford, Finn Harps or Jeunesse Hautcharage. They aimed 20 shots of their own at Roy Carroll's goal.
For comparisons you would have to summon up Trevor Wymark's four against Lazio at Portman Road or Dennis Viollet's four in the 10-0 rout of an Anderlecht side whose previous visit to England had seen them beat Arsenal. Jeff Mermens, the Anderlecht captain, walked off the pitch saying he had never seen football like it.
You would not say the same of Manchester United on Wednesday night; defensively they were too often penetrated and, but for Carroll and some wild shooting, Sparta Prague might have had more than a single goal. Roy Keane thought United would have to tighten up defensively for the Manchester derby, while Ferguson demanded the win be built on in a way that neither the 6-2 destruction of Fenerbahce or the bitter victory over Arsenal had been.
Van Nistelrooy will be in the directors' box on Sunday, serving the last of his three-match ban for his wretched tackle on Ashley Cole and, indifferently as City have played, he will be missed. In him they possess a striker whom his manager compared to Johan Cruyff, Alfredo di Stefano and Gerd Müller and Ferguson is a man who knows his football history.
Van Nistelrooy's record of 35 goals in 36 European appearances for Manchester United demands he be counted in this company. He does not score spectacular goals - of his 119 for United none has been struck from outside the penalty area. His skill lies in positioning, anticipation and, in Ferguson's words, not panicking. With two games remaining in Group D, Manchester United's task is straightforward. A point against Lyon on 23 November would see them through, providing they do not lose by four clear goals in Istanbul. Then comes the knock-out stages of the European Cup, a barrier that in recent years Ferguson's teams have found hard to cross.
These days Manchester United resemble the mirror image of Arsenal; spluttering and stuttering in the Premiership, commanding in Europe. In six Champions' League matches, including the qualifiers, they have scored 17 times while domestically they average only a goal a game. "The amount of points we're behind Arsenal and Chelsea we can't afford any more slip-ups," said Keane. "City'll be giving it a go and Kevin Keegan is a manager I've a lot of time for. It's been a bit of a roller-coaster lately but at home we fancy our chances against most teams."
For Van Nistelrooy the night was a cathartic one. His last appearance at Old Trafford had seen him score the penalty that overcame Arsenal and earn a three-match ban for his tackle on Cole.
"He's not a malicious person or a malicious player," remarked Rio Ferdinand. "So I take the outcry with a pinch of salt. People just jump on certain things and Ruud was an easy target because of what happened against Arsenal last year. But we are just looking forward now and Ruud has done that by scoring four goals."
GOING SOLO: SCORERS OF FOUR OR MORE
Scorers of four goals or more for English teams in Europe
Peter Osgood 5 for Chelsea v Jeunesse Hautcharage (Uefa Cup) 1971.
Kevin Hector 5 for Derby v Finn Harps (Uefa Cup) 1976.
Dennis Viollet 4 for Man Utd v Anderlecht (European Cup) 1956.
Peter Lorimer 4 for Leeds v Spora (Inter-Cities Fairs Cup) 1967.
Denis Law 4 for Man Utd v Waterford (European Cup) 1968.
Trevor Wymark 4 for Ipswich v Lazio (Uefa Cup) 1973.
Trevor Wymark 4 for Ipswich v Landskrona (Uefa Cup) 1977.
John Wark 4 for Ipswich v Aris Salonika (Uefa Cup) 1980.
Alan Smith 4 for Arsenal v AK Austria (European Cup) 1991.
Ruud van Nistelrooy 4 for Man Utd v Sparta Prague (Champions' League) 2004.Reuse content