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It is said that one of the main reasons why Sir Alex Ferguson asked to stay on as head coach of Manchester United FC for another three years was that he wanted to be around when many of the club’s players came to their peak. Ruud van Nistelrooij is one such player, although with the freedom with which he has been scoring goals this season it is hard to imagine him getting any better.
Match-saviour last week in the UEFA Champions League tie away to FC Nantes Atlantique and match-winner last Saturday against Aston Villa FC in the FA Premiership, Ferguson will again be looking to the Dutchman to produce when United go in search of the win against Nantes in the return leg at Old Trafford that will take them to within one step of a place in the quarter-finals.
'Gained a yard'
Commenting on Van Nistelrooij’s progress since his signing from PSV Eindhoven last summer, Ferguson said: "I thought I would have to leave him out at some stage. But around October time he started to blossom and even gained a yard or two. He could have had seven goals in Nantes last week. I watched him in training the day before the Villa game and Ruud was absolutely flying - like one of my horses on the gallops at Newmarket. Now I can look forward to him developing over the next two or three years."
No doubt Van Nistelrooij will be looking forward to renewing his duel with Mikaël Landreau, the young Nantes goalkeeper who defied him last week at the Beaujoire stadium and eventually only succumbed in the fourth minute of added-on time from the penalty spot. Landreau was roundly applauded by teammates and opponents alike for his performance and Fabien Barthez, the United goalkeeper, has urged the France coach to take him to the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals. "He was fantastic," said Gary Neville, the United central defender. "Hopefully, at Old Trafford he’ll let a few under his body or slip through his arms."
Angel Marcos, the Nantes coach, knows that only a victory will do at Old Trafford if his side are to have any chance of reaching the quarter-finals; at the moment they are the only side in Group A without a win. Their situation is not helped any by the fact that they will be without three first-choice defenders: Nicolas Laspalles and Nicolas Gillet because of injury and Mario Yepes because of suspension, following his handball which led to the penalty in last week’s game.
The struggling French club suffered a further disappointment, in Le Championnat last Saturday when they lost 2-1 away to AJ Auxerre after Mauro Celto was sent off in the 31st minute. Prior to his dismissal the Romanian, Viorel Moldovan, who opened the scoring against United, had pulled Nantes level, but the ten men were undone with 17 minutes remaining. This will be Nantes' fourth game in eleven days. Although Marcos has said "I don’t feel the team is tired", he did rest striker Marama Vahirua and midfielder Stéphane Ziani at the weekend.
Nantes, who have never beaten an English team, must hope that United have an off-day not dissimilar to the one they did in their opening home game this season in the UEFA Champions League, when they struggled to break down another French club - Lille OSC - before David Beckham came to their rescue with a 90th-minute winner. United will have Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs - who is one goal short of his 100th in competitive football - available after being rested against Villa.
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