| VAN NISTELROOY: Old Trafford career record now 70 goals from 86 caps
When Manchester United raised the Premiership, FA Cup and Champions League trophies inside ten days in 1999 they achieved the unsurpassable: a sweep of available trophies that was unique in English football history.
After Everest, what do you climb'
Answer: the steps of Madrid’s whitewashed and regal Bernabeu, where Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Raul will line up like Spanish dukes to greet United’s best Tuesday night. It is a measure of Real Madrid’s capacity to seize the Mancunian imagination that Saturday’s match against Liverpool felt like a mere prelude to the full orchestral movement.
For Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, it was about staying sound in mind and body while tucking away the three Premiership points.
Here comes the crescendo to United’s season — a bashing of cymbals to match the great rhapsody of 1999. It started with the club’s biggest victory over Liverpool for 50 years and now climbs the scale with contests against Real Madrid (twice), Newcastle, Blackburn and Arsenal, all in the space of 18 days.
Ferguson says he is “reminded of the closing stages” in the treble-winning year. He writes: “I suppose nothing can really compare with the final three matches then — two cup finals and a league decider — but that apart, I cannot think of a tougher period than the next six games. We cannot afford to lose a single one of them if we are to achieve our ambitions.”
There is a brutal reckoning on the way. If Arsenal win the Premiership and Real Madrid give them a royal cuffing then United will finish trophy-less for the second consecutive season. Victory in either of those competitions would validate Ferguson’s lavish transfer spending and mark the coming of age of another great United side.
The current crop has the potential to emulate the class of 1999 as well as the Cantona-Hughes-Ince-Kanchelskis generation before them. Conversely, another barren year might prompt the break up of the present starting XI. This is where we are with Ferguson’s rebuilding. For 18 days, the regeneration process will be put to every conceivable test.
To Madrid Monday, United take equality on points with Arsenal and the encouraging memory of a one-sided, non-taxing win over Liverpool that was rendered a four-goal non-event by the dismissal of Sami Hyypia when the game was only three minutes and 26 seconds old. Hyypia both pulled Ruud van Nistelrooy’s shirt and tripped him from behind as United’s lethal Dutchman was sprinting through on goal.
Result: penalty, plus a red card. A double punishment which killed the game. Treble, in fact, if you count the cost to the spectator.
Mike Riley, the referee, was correct in applying a law that covers the denial of goalscoring opportunities. But it remains anomalous that a team can be penalised twice for a single offence. The problem with watering down this draconian regulation, of course, is that defenders would be encouraged to hack down strikers in the penalty area in the hope the resultant penalty would be missed. The double jeopardy law thus works as a deterrent.
Van Nistelrooy’s penalty was followed an hour later by a second — this time after Igor Biscan, pressed into service at centre-half —kicked Paul Scholes in the air. And so it was that the most natural goalscorer of Ferguson’s 17 years at the club recorded his 40th bullseye in 55 league starts.
Van Nistlerooy has struck 34 times in all competitions this year, an astonishing collection that includes 12 Champions League goals. His Old Trafford career record is now 70 in 86 starts, which must bear comparison with any elite centre-forward in any age. Five in two matches is his current sequence. How United need him to puncture Real’s sometimes wobbly defence Tuesday night.
“Madrid don’t defend as well as United,” observed Gerard Houllier, the Liverpool manager, who said he was “hurt” by the scale of his team’s defeat. Houllier also thought that the winner of the United-Real quarter final would go on to lift what many of us still insist on calling the European Cup.
The imagination can barely cope with the idea of United trotting out to face a fellow behemoth at Old Trafford on May 28.
By then, security will have been tightened sufficiently to stop Karl Power and his prank-meisters running on to the pitch in full United regalia ten minutes before kick-off, as they did on Saturday. It was half funny until they started goading the Liverpool fans.
Those Anfield die-hards now acknowledge that a fourth place Premiership finish will represent something of a triumph at the end of an undulating campaign. Two further second-half goals, from Ryan Giggs and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, drove home the cost of Hyypia’s dismissal — which, Houllier thought, left them facing an “insurmountable task”.
Liverpool have the Worthington Cup victory over United to protect them from despair. But they may come to remember the 2002-03 season as a small backward step in an age of many forward leaps. As ever at Anfield, a sense of proportion will be maintained.
For English football generally, it was a mercy to see United conserve their energies for the cauldron of Tuesday night. “The second half here was fantastic for us. We were able to play without running,” Ferguson said. “We saved our energy that way.”
He calls this “the killer stage of the season”. It’s 1999 again.