By Jonathan Caswell at Old Trafford
Ruud van Nistelrooij equalled a UEFA Champions League record as he claimed all four of Manchester United FC's goals to give them victory against AC Sparta Praha, who have now been eliminated.
The 1998/99 winners were made to work hard by their visitors, but Van Nistelrooij matched a mark held by Dado Pršo, Marco van Basten and Simone Inzaghi with his four strikes in a single Champions League game. United remain two points behind Olympique Lyonnais in the group after the French champions beat Fenerbahçe SK, but Sparta, for whom Karel Poborský was dismissed three minutes from the end, can now only hope for a third-place finish.
United were able to welcome back Roy Keane and Van Nistelrooij after both had missed Saturday's Premiership defeat at Portsmouth FC, the former through illness the latter suspension. Sparta coach František Straka named the same team that had held United 0-0 in Prague on Matchday 3.
The Czech visitors began with intent, but were on the back foot early on. Cristiano Ronaldo, relishing his free role, forced Jaromír Blazek to save after a searing run. Moments later the goalkeeper denied Wayne Rooney after the England striker had been found by the lively Ronaldo.
Although Sparta were posing some problems with their counterattacks, one of which saw Tomáš Jun volley wide, it was United who took the lead on 14 minutes. An ill-advised back-pass by Jirí Homola was picked up by the grateful Van Nistelrooij, lurking behind the Sparta defence. The Dutchman rounded the goalkeeper and slotted in to claim his 34th United goal in European competition, a tally that was to increase three times before the night was out.
Scholes heads wide
Then, on 20 minutes, Paul Scholes missed a golden opportunity to double the lead with Ronaldo again the architect down the left. His cross found Rio Ferdinand and although the defender's shot was mistimed it fell to Scholes, who headed wide from close range.
But five minutes later Scholes won his team a penalty, racing on to a ball just outside the box only to be brought down by Martin Petráš. Van Nistelrooij, whose only goals in the Premiership this season have come from the spot, stepped up and converted it.
Carroll into action
Even with a two-goal cushion United were forced to be wary and as the first half petered out home goalkeeper Roy Carroll was brought into action, saving Poborský's volley and Lukáš Zelenka's follow-up in quick succession. United broke, with Rooney feeding Ronaldo whose shot was superbly saved by Blazek.
Zelenka on target
If United thought they could coast on a comfortable 2-0 lead they had forgotten the warnings of the first half, which were starkly realised within eight minutes of the restart. Zelenka, illustrating his midfield talent, picked the ball up in his own half and played a crisp one-two with Jun and shot in, silencing a packed Old Trafford.
Van Nistelrooij hat-trick
However, Van Nistelrooij was scenting a hat-trick and he gave United breathing space just when they needed it. A hopeful ball up the middle on the hour bounced over the visiting defence and Van Nistelrooij calmly lobbed the on-rushing keeper to restore the two-goal difference.
Former United player Poborský's return to his old ground was marred by a late sending off after he picked up a second yellow card for a foul on Gabriel Heinze, and in added time Liam Miller was released on the right to cut back for Van Nistelrooij to tap in his record-equalling fourth.