Ruud hits top gear


Artykuł pochodzi z pisma "Guardian"

Paul Wilson at Old Trafford
Sunday March 23, 2003
The Observer

A hat-trick from Ruud van Nistelrooy took Manchester United to the top of the Premiership for the first time in a year, leaving Sir Alex Ferguson to tighten the psychological screw on an Arsenal side he has already castigated for overconfidence. 'Winning is what matters now,' Ferguson said. 'Championships are not won through overconfidence and complacency. This season it is going to be a test of nerve, concentration and ambition.'

Arsenal can go back to the top by winning their game in hand this afternoon, but as Ferguson well knows, their confidence has taken a knock in the past week. Going out of the Champions League was a big blow to their self-belief and a team who can lose twice to Blackburn Rovers in a season can do so against Everton. Arsenal also have that FA Cup quarter-final replay against Chelsea on Tuesday to worry about. The success of their season now rests on the next few days and Arsenal's story so far suggests they run out of ideas once other teams have caught them up.

Ferguson is right to guard against complacency, though. His side's next three games are against Liverpool, Newcastle United and Arsenal, in an 11-day period that also includes the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid, so by mid-April we will know a great deal more about United's chances of winning silverware this season. Ferguson might be encouraged by the relative ordinariness of Real's season so far, but that was exactly the case when the Spanish giants woke up at the quarter-final stage three years ago to dump United out of the competition.

United will have to improve considerably on this uninspired display to cause their English rivals problems, let alone their continental ones. As is their wont, Fulham played attractive, enterprising football, without giving Fabien Barthez anything to do, and the home side took the opportunity to collect three points at a stroll.

'Van Nistelrooy was the difference, he is a fantastic player,' Fulham manager Jean Tigana said. As a summary, that can hardly be improved upon, yet the mundane truth is that the Holland striker's first was a debatable penalty, his second could have been chalked off for catching Sylvain Legwinski in the face and his third was helped in by a deflection.

The scoreline did not flatter United, who could have gone up a few gears had the need arisen, but it was not the sort of game or performance to post notice of intent. 'We showed good composure in the first half,' Ferguson said. 'We took our time, we have learnt to be patient.'

He can say that again. United could have been behind at half-time, after Martin Djetou struck the bar from Fulham's only attack of note, and looked certain to turn around scoreless until Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did the professional thing in the penalty area in the 45th minute. There was a slight tug from Djetou, Solskjaer made the most of it and Van Nistelrooy scored from the the spot. In fairness, the referee was well placed and there were few objections from Fulham. 'I was not angry,' Tigana said, typifying his team's attitude.

However, he was incensed midway through an almost featureless second half when a determined Van Nistelrooy broke from halfway and cut an elegant swathe through the entire Fulham defence to score a candidate for goal of the season. Tigana was not upset at the defensive fragility; his point was that Van Nistelrooy's flailing arm had caught and cut Legwinski's face before he set off on his run and that his defenders had stopped in anticipation of a free-kick.

Fulham must learn to play to the whistle. United always do and the fourth official was emerging with his overtime board when Van Nistelrooy added his third. The cross came from Ryan Giggs on the left wing, even though the excellent John O'Shea had provided most of the threat from that area all afternoon, and Van Nistelrooy's volley was helped past Maik Taylor by a deflection off Jon Harley.

Only after the second goal did United supporters feel confident enough to start crowing about being top of the league. As if to emphasise the training-ground nature of the game, neither manager felt the need to send on a substitute. Fulham never expected anything from this fixture, while United were on economy setting. The immediate pressure might be on Arsenal, but Ferguson is not expecting this title race to be over in March. He knows his TS Eliot. April could be the cruellest month.

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