In only his second appearance of the season, the Dutchman established himself above Denis Law as the most prolific European goalscorer in United history with a two-goal salvo that rescued a Red Devils side that seemed to be spinning to certain defeat.
Trailing to first-half efforts from Cris and Pierre Frau, van Nistelrooy, ably assisted by dazzling Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo, dragged his team back into the game in five stunning minutes after the interval.
First Ronaldo dug out a cross that allowed van Nistelrooy to steer a low header past Gregory Coupet, his 29th European goal, one more than the legendary Law.
No celebrations from the former PSV man just then. Instead, he waited until Ronaldo’s attempted shot had deflected into his path off Anthony Reveillere, offering the time and space to beat Coupet for a second time.
It was not quite ‘Barcelona 99’ but, for a side badly lacking in confidence after a wretched start to the season, it was still a significant achievement and one Sir Alex Ferguson will hope can be carried into his side’s Premiership campaign, where they’ve fallen nine points adrift of Arsenal.
Loyalty has been always been one of the fundamental traits of Ferguson’s management and the Scot has steadfastly refused to betray men who have consistently let him down over the past 12 months.
Tim Howard was taken out of the firing line following the monumental last-minute error against Porto that cost United their place in last season’s competition but the American was back in the side long before United lifted the FA Cup in Cardiff last May.
Ferguson’s faith also endured his goalkeeper’s blunder at Bolton on Saturday, with Sir Alex quick to confirm he would be part of his starting line-up this evening.
When Howard bravely rushed out to block Florent Malouda’s attempt to steer Wiltord’s through-ball into the net midway through the opening period, Ferguson’s selection looked to be a wise one. Nine minutes from the interval, it was exposed as pure folly.
Howard could justifiably point to the crowded penalty area as a partial excuse for his failure to collect Juninho’s long-range free-kick but, given he got a clean hold on the ball before he dropped it straight into Cris’ path, the blame was still firmly his.
United’s creaky rearguard was rocking from the opening minutes, with only Gabriel Heinze looking the part.
In addition to Malouda’s saved effort, Cacapa headed narrowly wide from Juninho’s corner and Frau came close to netting Wiltord’s low cross.
Badly outgunned in midfield, United mustered little in response. A poor Ryan Giggs effort from a Roy Keane cross was the best they could manage as van Nistelrooy’s chronic lack of match fitness was highlighted by his failure to latch on to an excellent Paul Scholes through-ball.
The second goal was therefore in no way flattering to a Lyon side, although Ferguson might wonder why three of his players stopped immediately in front of the dugout from which he watched unhappily, appealing in vain for a free-kick in favour of Ronaldo as Frau finished off a lightning counter-attack by smashing Wiltord’s square pass beyond a stranded Howard.
After half time van Nistelrooy produced a rousing comeback, for which United are so famous.
Even so, there should have been a sting in the tail for the visitors as Nilmar contrived to volley wide from barely a yard with the goal at his mercy before Juninho struck the base of a post with the last kick of the game. But, given the character they had showed to launch their second half fightback, United deserved that bit of luck.
: Coupet, Reveillere, Cris, Cacapa, Abidal, Wiltord (Clement 88), Essien, Juninho, Malouda, Govou (Ben Arfa 75), Frau (Nilmar 65).
: Howard, O’Shea (Phil Neville 83), Brown, Silvestre, Heinze, Ronaldo, Keane, Djemba-Djemba, Giggs, Scholes, van Nistelrooy (Smith 79).
: Wolfgang Stark (Germany).