His four goals in Manchester United FC's 4-1 UEFA Champions League win against AC Sparta Praha at Old Trafford underlined that Ruud van Nistelrooij remains one of the greatest strikers in European football, but his seven European goals are only one aspect of what has been a difficult season for the Dutchman.
When it comes to Champions League goalscoring, Van Nistelrooij is in a field of his own. His seven strikes have moved the Dutchman two goals clear of his nearest rival in the battle to be top marksman, Werder Bremen's Ivan Klasnic, and brought his overall total to 35 goals in 36 games for United in the competition.
"His record is unbelievable, he is the most clinical striker I've seen here," purred United manager Sir Alex Ferguson after the Sparta victory. "He is cool with his finishing, he doesn't panic and he is so quick with his feet too.
All great strikers enjoy the big stage of European football and Ruud is like that too."
However, while Van Nistelrooij has been enjoying the European stage ever since he opened his account for the season with two goals in his side's 2-2 draw at Olympique Lyonnais, he has not been having as much fun in England; scoring only twice in six Premiership games, with both goals coming from penalties.
One of those two spot-kicks was converted in United's 2-0 win against Arsenal FC - a triumph which ended an unbeaten run of 49 Premiership games for the English champions. However, while Van Nistelrooij played a vital role in the victory, his contribution to the game was not entirely positive.
A match which promised to be a showcase for the best of Premiership football was marred by several unsavoury incidents. One of the worst of these was a Van Nistelrooij challenge on Arsenal's Ashley Cole which was missed by the referee but caught by the cameras.
'No deliberate intent'
On viewing the footage, the Football Association handed Van Nistelrooij a three-match ban which the player accepted without protest. "I take full responsibility," he said. "There was no deliberate intent to harm Ashley Cole and I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to him."
However, the apology was a little too late for Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger who now faces an official FA charge of his own for allegedly calling the United striker a cheat.
The three-game suspension Van Nistelrooij earned for the tackle on Cole has been a costly one for United. While he was barely missed for United's League Cup game against Crewe Alexandra FC, his goalscoring touch was a noticable absence in two subsequent Premiership games as United lost 2-0 at Portsmouth FC and then drew 0-0 with Manchester City FC in the weekend's big derby game at Old Trafford.
Those results seemed to indicate that United lose much of their cutting edge without their leading striker. The Dutchman's goals against Sparta showed the club exactly what they were missing. Now United need to see him put his worst days behind him and replicate his European form in the Premiership. If Van Nistelrooij fails, it could be a long season for Sir Alex's men.
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