Van Nistelrooy left isolated after making early impact

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The Independent Football

After scoring more than 100 times in his first three campaigns with Manchester United, it scarcely seems credible that Ruud van Nistelrooy needed a goal and a good performance against Chelsea to underline his claims for a starting place in the FA Cup final a week on Saturday.

After scoring more than 100 times in his first three campaigns with Manchester United, it scarcely seems credible that Ruud van Nistelrooy needed a goal and a good performance against Chelsea to underline his claims for a starting place in the FA Cup final a week on Saturday.

Van Nistelrooy duly obliged with his first League goal since November, but like United as a whole, he flattered to deceive. He will probably still start against Arsenal in the Millennium Stadium - although there were again chants for Alan Smith as Chelsea took control - but the quandary of how to maximise United's attacking potential will join the more pressing problem of finding a reliable goalkeeper on Sir Alex Ferguson's list of summer priorities.

Before the game, Van Nistelrooy and his colleagues formed an honour guard to applaud the new champions on to the pitch, just as the Busby Babes did when Chelsea came to Old Trafford a week after winning the title 50 years ago. One of the London club's defenders on that occasion, Stan Willemse, recalled recently that "we couldn't wait to get all that over with so we could get back to hating each other again".

If Van Nistelrooy's comments in the match programme are to be believed, the primary emotion among the United squad towards Jose Mourinho's side is respect. The Dutchman revealed he had voted for John Terry, Chelsea's captain, as the Professional Footballers' Association's Player of the Year. Terry's absence can only have encouraged Van Nistelrooy to believe his luck in front of goal was about to change.

After a season blighted by injuries - first to a groin, then, after a premature return, to his Achilles, costing him three months - the striker was certainly due the break that came his way in the eighth minute. As the ball was whipped in low from the left by Wayne Rooney, Chelsea appealed, with some justification, for offside against Cristiano Ronaldo. Van Nistelrooy timed his short run to perfection to score at close range, his focus typically unaffected by the upraised blue arms. We are in the second week in May, and incredibly it was only the serial striker's second goal from open play in 16 Premiership games this season, and the first at Old Trafford.

There have been enough other goals to ensure his confidence remained high, including eight in the Champions' League and the two which broke Newcastle United in the FA Cup semi-final last month. But it was clearly a relief to Van Nistelrooy.

There was something about the distance from which he pounced - Van Nistelrooy has never scored from outside the penalty area - and the finesse of the finish that made it plain why Ferguson had opted for him ahead of Smith or Louis Saha in what was surely his starting line-up for the Arsenal final. He might have had a second before half-time, controlling a stunning diagonal pass by Paul Scholes, only for a textbook sliding tackle by Ricard Carvalho to take it off his foot.

Van Nistelrooy talked in his programme interview about his hopes for a prolific partnership with Rooney. Against Chelsea, however, he was too often a lone attacker, with the former Everton wunderkind in a wide role on the left of midfield.

Chelsea's tendency to pull everyone behind the ball when United pressed made it imperative that Ferguson's men got behind them on the flanks. It seldom happened, leaving Van Nistelrooy increasingly isolated, and after such an auspicious start, it was a measure of his frustration that he was booked for dissent after appealing too forcibly for an implausible penalty.

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