By Jonathan Caswell at Old Trafford
Manchester United FC pipped VfB Stuttgart to first place in UEFA Champions League Group E after a typically assured Old Trafford performance.
Both sides were already through before the match, but United needed to win to top the group, and goals either side of the break from Ruud van Nistelrooij and Ryan Giggs ensured they did just that. The strikes also made sure that there will be no immediate rematch with their quarter-final conquerors last season, Real Madrid CF, and their new midfield man, David Beckham.
Tim Howard and Roy Keane were rested by United, as Sir Alex Ferguson brought in reserve goalkeeper Roy Carroll and Paul Scholes, the latter making his first start since recovering from a groin injury. With Marcelo Borden still out, also with a groin injury, Stuttgart only made one change to the team that beat Rangers FC on Matchday 5, Jurica Vranješ coming in for Silvio Meissner in right midfield.
Stuttgart were as good as their word in taking the game to United, and on four minutes Philipp Lahm struggled free to find himself in acres of space but his shot was easily gathered by Carroll in the United goal. United's first effort came after ten minutes when Scholes was fed by Quinton Fortune, and his shot forced Timo Hildebrand to stretch to save.
Giggs shoots over
Although United were exerting plenty of pressure, Stuttgart proved incisive on the counterattack but on 27 minutes they were nearly behind as Van Nistelrooij set Darren Fletcher away. The Scotsman drew Hildebrand and squared, but Giggs blazed over. Five minutes later United had another chance, as Giggs found Gary Neville, who shot wide.
Van Nistelrooij record
United were on top, but Stuttgart nearly snatched the lead when Vranješ missed the target after a fine move. But just as it seemed the half would end goalless, Giggs danced past Fernando Meira to cross for Van Nistelrooij to head in his 28th European goal for United - equalling Denis Law's club record.
Stuttgart began the second period strongly, introducing Cacau for Imre Szabics in attack and Christian Tiffert for Vranješ. Timo Wenzel's powerful free-kick, blocked by Carroll, was a signal of their intentions. However, United were now looking good on the counterattack, and just such a move doubled their lead.
Van Nistelrooij shook off three markers and set Giggs away to run into the box and slide the ball past Hildebrand. The Welshman has now scored in a record nine Champions League campaigns, and Stuttgart's hopes of winning the group immediately faded decisively.
Indeed, although the visitors continued to show the heart that has been behind their recent fine run, United were able to withdraw Giggs, Van Nistelrooij and Scholes without losing stride. Substitute Diego Forlán went close in added time, but victory was secure. Confirmation that Chelsea FC and Madrid had won their groups, and therefore could now stand in the way of Stuttgart, was proof of how valuable first place is to United.