It’s always a nice nostalgic treat to see Manchester United bring out players from the club’s illustrious past for a friendly, and they did so again to great effect this past weekend with Real Madrid in town for a second Legends match of this summer. The game ended 2-2, with United winning the tie 5-3 on aggregate, but these friendly meetings are more a chance to bask in United’s yesteryear and see a flash of quality or two from a footballing great when they roll around. For one Dutchman inparticular, it was an opportunity to give Old Trafford a reminder of just how stunningly deadly he was with the goal in his sights.
There are no two ways about it; Ruud Van Nistelrooy is a bona fide United legend. £19m seemed like an eye-raising price in 2001, but the money PSV Eindhoven received for his services was utterly worthwhile considering just how ridiculously clinical Van Nistelrooy was in front of goal in his five years at the club. Whether it was from the penalty spot, in the air, or when put through on goal, there have been few better at the club at pure goalscoring. His ability to read play, get himself in position and blast the ball into the net by any means necessary was incredible, and a return of 150 goals in 219 appearances leaves him as United’s 12th all-time top scorer.
What made the man affectionately known to Old Trafford as “Ruuuuud” so wonderful to watch was how stunningly consistent he was. His size and strength certainly helped, but Van Nistelrooy had an unerring ability to be in the right place at the right time, and the variety of finishes that he was able to contribute in tight spaces was fantastic. For a tall man, he had bursts of pace capable of keeping defenders on their toes, and it’s stunning to see how few times United lost when he scored, even during a transitional period for the club that was relatively light on trophies. Watching his goals back now, what strikes most is his close control, and the way he was able to magically find a way to fire home even with several defenders offering him their undivided attention. Whittling down 150 goals to five was no easy task, but here are 5, in no particular order that we think deserve special mention:
1) United 2-3 Deportivo La Coruna, October 17th 2001
If you wanted an indication as to how well Van Nistelrooy had settled in after that summer transfer from PSV, this particular strike was his 8th of the season before October had even finished, and even with 142 to follow in the years after, it’s one of his best. Taking a deflection from David Beckham outside of the box, he dribbled between two defenders, barged beyond Enrique Romero on his right with Depor keeper Molina rushing out to meet him, and chipped a sumptuous finish into the far side of the goal from a tight angle.
2) Aston Villa 2-3 United, January 6th 2002
Whilst Van Nistelrooy’s second in this game might be more fondly remembered given that it capped off a stunning comeback from 2-0 down with three goals in 5 minutes, his first in this FA Cup tie at Villa Park was stunning. David Beckham had headed a Paul Scholes cross in his direction, and even with the attention of two centre backs, Van Nistelrooy was able to control the ball on his chest and volley into the roof of the net from close range. It’s a testament to how consistent he was both domestically and on the continent that Wayne Rooney, the club’s all-time top goalscorer only surpassed his record of 38 European strikes last season.
3) Basel 1-3 United, 26th November 2002
It was easy to overlook, given how regularly Van Nistelrooy was able to add the finishing touch to a great United move during this period, but the Dutchman could be magical with the ball at his feet. One memorable Champions League trip to Basel saw him bag a brace and earn United a 1-3 victory; here, he popped Sir Alex Ferguson’s team back in the lead with a moment of individual brilliance, dancing along the touchline with several defenders for company before firing a wonderful finish inside the post. Even watching now, it’s impossible to fault the Basel defence or Pascal Zuberbuhler in goal; they’d simply been torn apart.
4) Charlton Athletic 1-3 United, 19th November 2005
Whilst this awkward season ended up being the making of Ferguson’s last great United side, Van Nistelrooy’s final year at the club was marred with controversy; Roy Keane had left just prior to this game under acrimonious circumstances after that MUTV interview, United were struggling to keep pace with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and the Dutchman himself would walk out of Old Trafford for the return of this fixture in May having been told he was on the bench. That led to his exit to Real Madrid in the summer of 2006, but he still offered 24 goals that season, and this was likely the best. Rooney was the creator, running Charlton’s defence ragged with a mazy run before lifting a high cross towards his strike partner. Van Nistelrooy chested it down with his back to goal, span around quickly and blasted the ball into the top corner. No one in the home defence really knew what hit them.
5) United 3-0 Fulham, 22nd March 2003
In a season that saw Van Nistelrooy notch 44 goals, this was easily the best, and arguably the greatest goal that he ever notched in a red shirt. With United closing in on another Premier League title, Van Nistelrooy had already broken the deadlock with a characteristically routine first half penalty. His second, which was part of his fourth hat trick for the club, was anything but.
Collecting the ball from Nicky Butt in the centre circle, Van Nistelrooy shrugged off the attention of Sylvain Legwinski, and simply kept going. Shades of Ryan Giggs’ classic FA Cup strike against Arsenal were on show as he sprinted beyond a Fulham team that couldn’t get anywhere near him, and when he entered the penalty area with Maik Taylor trying to close him down, Van Nistelrooy sold him beautifully by slowing the ball down and gently tapping it beyond him into the far corner. Cue bedlam.
It’s unfortunate that Van Nistelrooy’s time at United didn’t end with more riches, given how wonderful he was for the club. One league title, an FA and League Cup was won in that five years, yet with the way Ferguson’s side prospered in the years after his exit, there’s an argument to say that the time was right to move the Dutchman on. But Van Nistelrooy’s prowess and ability in front of goal were absolutely undeniable, and he should rightly go down as one of the greatest goalscorers in the club’s history.