Man Utd 4 Sparta Prague 1
Alex Ferguson’s European wish was granted as Ruud van Nistelrooy netted his first Manchester United four-timer to take the Red Devils to a brink of a place in the last 16.
Ferguson’s misfiring side have found the net just 11 times in the Barclays Premiership but thanks to van Nistelrooy’s one-man super show, they have now eclipsed that number in just four Champions League outings.
In restoring the prolific Dutchman to his starting line-up following his recent domestic ban, Ferguson hoped all his side’s chances would fall at van Nistelrooy’s magical feet.
His wish did not quite come true as a series of squandered opportunities would testify – but five did and four of them ended up in the net.
It took van Nistelrooy’s European tally for United to a phenomenal 35 in 36 appearances since his £18.5million move from PSV Eindhoven three years ago and 119 overall.
No matter how many striking stars he has bought lately, van Nistelrooy is the man Ferguson cannot do without.
Having resisted his pre-match threat to give himself a game, Ferguson had come up with a novel way of addressing his team’s striking problems – forget about defence, concentrate on attack, at all times.
It might not be a guaranteed way to gain success against ultimate pragmatists like AC Milan or even Chelsea but it was enough to see off Sparta and contribute to one of the most entertaining encounters Old Trafford has hosted in recent times.
Evidence to prove the end-to-end nature of the contest came in the knowledge that goalkeeper Roy Carroll had a plausible claim to be United’s player of the opening period, even though his team scored two goals and should have had many more.
The Northern Irishman pulled off a string of fine stops but his double effort near the end of the opening period which denied first Tomas Jun, then Lukas Zelenka was worthy of comparison with anything the great man Schmeichel produced.
Had Sparta scored at that stage, United’s fragile confidence could have been shattered. After all, they had dominated possession and created an incredible number of clear-cut chances.
Their onslaught started in the fourth minute, when Gabriel Heinze latched onto van Nistelrooy’s deep cross and smashed a fierce 25-yard volley off the inside of a post.
Wayne Rooney had a shot beaten away and Paul Scholes then inexplicably headed wide after Rio Ferdinand’s half-hit volleyed shot straight into his path barely four yards out.
By then though, United had the cushion of an opening goal gifted to them by Jiri Homola, who clearly did not realise van Nistelrooy was still making his way out of the Sparta box when he delivered an ill-advised backpass straight into the Dutchman’s path.
Any spot-kick demons still swirling around in van Nistelrooy’s mind were extinguished by the penalty he netted against Arsenal 10 days ago, so when Martin Petras wiped Scholes out after the former England man had darted into the box after seizing on Zelenka’s attempted clearance, the former PSV Eindhoven man strode forward with the air of a man who was not going to miss and sent Blazek the wrong way.
Ronaldo’s magnificent skills have been one of the few consistent forms of entertainment for United over the last 18 months and his brilliance tonight earned him a standing ovation when he left the field midway through the second half.
At such a tender age though, perfection is impossible and there is clearly work required on his final ball.
Time and again, Ronaldo’s jet-propelled heels left the visitors for dead but the finish his trickery deserved wouldn’t come.
Clean through in the final minute of the opening period after Van Nistelrooy and Rooney had combined to split the Sparta defence, the 19-year-old winger could only blast his shot against Blazek.
And it was the goalkeeper who denied him again when his 30-yard free-kick sailed towards the corner shortly before Phil Neville replaced him.
Poor finishing is obviously not a problem van Nistelrooy suffers from. And, after Zelenka had pulled Sparta back into the game by finishing off a flowing attack with a clinical first-time finish from Jun’s lay-off, the United striker emulated Rooney’s achievement against Fenerbahce by completing his sixth United hat-trick.
The goal was pure route one as Heinze delivered a crossfield pass from the left, Rooney challenged for it and missed but as the ball bounced up Radoslav Kovac failed to get a firm enough contact with his intended header back to Blazek and van Nistelrooy nipped in to lob the ball over the goalkeeper and into the net.
The Dutchman was not done though and after Blazek had kept out his close-range effort in stoppage time, he loitered around long enough to sweep home Keane’s cross with virtually the last kick of the match.