Van Nistelrooy trumps Rooney's trick

Manchester United 4 Sparta Prague 1

Some strikers are born to score hat-tricks, some achieve hat-tricks, while others have hat-tricks thrust upon them. Last night Ruud van Nistelrooy belonged in category three.

Some strikers are born to score hat-tricks, some achieve hat-tricks, while others have hat-tricks thrust upon them. Last night Ruud van Nistelrooy belonged in category three.

For the second Champions' League match in succession, Old Trafford witnessed three goals or more from a great centre-forward. But while Wayne Rooney's hat-trick against Fenerbahce was full of swagger and promise, Van Nistelrooy's four was all about the art of opportunism. His goals came from an abysmal back-pass, a penalty, a defensive hesitation and a tap-in from a few yards.

This is not to be sniffy about Van Nistelrooy, who has now scored 35 times in 36 Champions' League matches for Manchester United. Without his instinctive brilliance this might have been another match of glaringly wasted chances against wonderfully resilient opponents.

"The great strikers love Europe; the Cruyffs, the Di Stefanos, the Müllers. They love the stage," his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, reflected afterwards. "He is the most clinical striker we have ever seen here. It gets to a stage when you hope all the chances fall to him."

The chances flew to almost everyone on both sides last night; the difference was Van Nistelrooy took all of his.

Managers often remark that their teams could have scored half-a-dozen before half time. Nearly always they come from the Gérard Houllier school of shot-counting, where back-passes are measured as attempts on goal. Last night the official statistics showed 23 genuine shots before half-time and 36 in all. The majority came from Sparta Prague.

In between the goals, United found some astonishing ways not to score. Van Nistelrooy delivered a cross that appeared aimlessly directed and far too deep. Gabriel Heinze, charging in from the left, let it bounce once and crashed it on to the intersection of post and crossbar. Cristiano Ronaldo three times shot straight at Jaromir Blazek when faced with a clear sight of goal. Paul Scholes somehow managed to head wide from all of five yards.

Having dodged the bullets, Sparta then shot themselves in the foot. Van Nistelrooy was trudging back towards his own half, having given Ronaldo some brutally frank opinions on his shot placement, when Pavel Pergl, the Prague right-back, passed straight to him. All the Dutchman had to do was round the keeper and drive the ball into an empty net.

The penalty that ought to have settled this match but did not was hardly in question and nor was the fact that Van Nistelrooy would convert it. Martin Petras's tackle was recklessly timed to take Scholes' legs and the spot-kick was mercilessly delivered.

All this might give the impression that Sparta Prague had tiptoed into Manchester, curled up like a bashful hedgehog and awaited their fate. From the start, they attacked frantically, fluidly created space and shot almost on sight, sometimes very well. Tomas Jun volleyed past the post and then a minute before the interval had a shot turned aside by Roy Carroll while Lukas Zalenka sent the rebound crashing against the Ulsterman's body.

This kind of pressure could not be denied and, eight minutes after the restart, Jun and Zalenka exchanged passes and the latter threaded his way through to finish beautifully.

This error from United's central defenders was immediately eclipsed by one from Radoslav Kovac, who hesitated when running back to deal with a long hoof upfield from Heinze. Van Nistelrooy took advantage without thinking, darting in between defender and keeper to complete a hat-trick achieved almost without shedding sweat.

The Dutchman was not done though and after Blazek had kept out his close-range effort, he loitered around long enough to sweep home Roy Keane's cross with virtually the last kick of the match.

Looking ahead to United's next Group D game, at home to Lyon, Ferguson said: "Well, we have to win because if Fenerbahce were to beat Sparta Prague, we then go to Turkey knowing we need to get a result, a draw. But if we win against Lyon we know we're safe."

Manchester United: (4-4-2) Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Heinze; Miller, Keane, Scholes (P Neville, 69), Ronaldo (Kleberson, 69); Rooney, Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Saha, Giggs, Smith, Djemba-Djemba.

Sparta Prague: (4-5-1) Blazek; Pergl, Homola, Kovac, Petras; Poborsky Sivok, Zelenka, Vorisek (Meduna, 72), Urbanek (Simak, 82); Jun (Pacanda, 81). Substitutes not used: Bicik (gk), Michalik, Cech, Koubsky.

Referee: A Hamer (Luxembourg).

ELSEWHERE IN GROUP D

Two injury-time goals by substitute Nilmar handed Lyon a 4-2 victory over Fenerbahce and sent the French club into the knockout round. The Turkish side went in front through midfielder Sahin Selcuk in the 14th minute but Mickael Essien equalised eight minutes later. Florent Malouda gave the French champions the lead from close range after the interval and they hung on to the advantage until Tuncay headed home in the 73rd. With time running out, Nilmar - who came on for striker Sidney Govou - hit a double to seal qualification from the group. The Turkish side finished with 10 men after Cetin Servet was sent off for a second bookable offence.

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