When Sir Alex Ferguson was last talking, one of his more provocative comments was that Ruud van Nistelrooy is the best striker in Europe. At the time it seemed premature, and the case is still hard to prove in a land, never mind a continent, that boasts Michael Owen and Thierry Henry et al, but it is getting easier.
Three goals in this game upped his tally for the season to 16 goals in 20 starts, which is a prolific return for Ferguson's £18m, but is more remarkable given that the Dutchman is going through the running-in period that most foreigners endure when they arrive in England. He will be quite a sight when he hits the height of his powers.
"He's playing very well," Ferguson said on MUTV with a degree of understatement. "He's getting stronger. English football takes it out of you until you are used to the physical nature of it but he's adjusting very well. You also have to remember he was out of the game for more than a year in Holland so in that respect he's made a marvellous comeback."
Against Southampton, who did not have a clue how to cope, Van Nistelrooy gave a master class. Strong, elusive and deadly, he had three opportunities and took them all without giving the slightest hint he was going to miss.
"Normally when you get beaten five or six your goalkeeper has made a few good saves," Gordon Strachan, the Southampton manager, said with a mixture of awe and regret, "but today our man has hardly made any. Their clinical finishing was phenomenal.
"Van Nistelrooy has it all. Some strikers have the theory that the less they do the fitter they'll be when they get the ball, but he was all over the place. I've known the manager 20 years and he has always said the two strikers determine how well your team plays, and on that basis a lot of what they did today was world class."
That class was apparent from the start because Van Nistelrooy made his mark almost from the first kick. Paul Scholes delivered the first of a portfolio of near perfect passes, the Southampton defence ball watched with the earnestness of ornithologists studying a rare breed and the United striker thumped the ball past Paul Jones into the far corner.
A scrambled goal and another piece of finishing in the 54th minute that would have won applause from a Harley Street surgeon, following another inch-perfect pass from Scholes, completed Van Nistelrooy's first hat-trick for United and confirmed that the assimilation process is nearly complete. "It's a physical league," he said, "but I'm getting the tempo. I notice the difference in the last 15 minutes of matches."
There is also a marked difference in Scholes, who has cast aside the confusion and unhappiness of the autumn, and had a match to treasure. He has not been restored to central midfield but he is operating from Ryan Giggs' left flank and in terms of creativity is outplaying both David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron. Normally a hat-trick would eclipse the efforts of everyone but even Van Nistelrooy could not overshadow the England midfielder.
With Nicky Butt and Roy Keane also playing well and Giggs certain of a place once he is fit, Ferguson has an embarrassment of riches that so far has led to the exclusion of Beckham and is a conundrum that will dominate the United manager's last season in control at Old Trafford.
The other theme will be their charge from behind in the Premiership. Can they become the first team to win the elite division on four successive occasions, despite going into Christmas with six defeats? "We need a massive performance from us now to do it," was Ferguson's response but Strachan has discerned a difference. "There was a spark in their eyes again," he said, "and that's good news for Manchester United."
Goals: Van Nistelrooy (1) 1-0; Van Nistelrooy (34) 2-0; Solskjaer (41) 3-0; Van Nistelrooy (54) 4-0; Pahars (55) 4-1; Keane (73) 5-1; P Neville (79) 6-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Barthez 5; P Neville 6, Blanc 4, G Neville 5, Silvestre 5; Veron 5 (Beckham 65, 5), Keane 7 (Wallwork 80, 5), Butt 6, Scholes 8; Van Nistelrooy 8, Solskjaer 5 (Giggs 65, 6). Substitutes (not used): Irwin, Carroll (gk).
Southampton (4-4-2): Jones 5; Dodd 4, Lundekvam 4, Williams 4, Bridge 6; Davies 4 (Ormerod 58, 5), Telfer 4, Svensson 4 (Delap 80, 5), Marsden 5, Beattie 5, Pahars 6. Substitutes (not used): Moss (gk), El-Khalej, Petrescu.
Referee: S Dunn (Bristol) 7.
Bookings: Man Utd: Scholes; Southampton: Davies.
Man of the match: Scholes.
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