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Ruud Awakening

Van Nistelrooy takes center stage after departure of Beckham

July 26, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

The circus that is Manchester United rolls into town today, replete with ringmaster Sir Alex Ferguson and clowns Juan Sebastian Veron and Roy Keane.

Ferguson, the benighted Scots knight, will be expected to impart some words of coaching wisdom to the Los Angeles masses. The performance of Argentina's Juan Sebastian Veron will be scrutinized as he fights, possibly in vain, not to be traded to Chelsea or anywhere else. And the Irishman will be closely watched for any signs of the famous wrath of Keane.

But it is a 27-year-old lantern-jawed striker named Rutgerus Van Nistelrooy who is the star of the show. The wizard of Oss -- Van Nistelrooy's home town in the Netherlands -- is enough to make anyone forget David What's His Name. Uh, Beckham, was it?

For the last two European soccer seasons, one of the great subplots in the drama that is the English Premier League has been the toe-to-toe battle between two of the continent's finest forwards.

In 2002, Arsenal won the title, powered there by the goals of French World Cup winner Thierry Henry. Manchester United finished second.

In 2003, Manchester United grabbed the honors, led by the goals of "Ruud" Van Nistelrooy. Arsenal finished second.

The start of the 2004 season is only a few weeks away, and United is here to fine-tune its team for the post-Beckham era. It plays Mexico's Club America on Sunday at the Coliseum in the second game of a four-game U.S. tour.

Already, United has thrashed Scotland's Celtic, 4-0, on Tuesday in Seattle, a result that prompted a journalist from England's Telegraph newspaper to observe that even the most soccer-illiterate fan in the crowd of 66,722 would have been impressed.

"There was no fear that the enthusiastic Seattle soccer public would spend the game applauding goal kicks and long throw-ins," he wrote, "because even the novices in the bleachers could tell that in Van Nistelrooy they had someone of real value to watch."

It can very reasonably be argued that Van Nistelrooy has been a far more valuable player to United over the last two seasons than Beckham, currently touring Asia with his new club, Real Madrid.

Beckham was good news at turnstiles and in the club shop, his name alone moving merchandise off the shelves at an alarming rate.

Van Nistelrooy is good news on the field. Games and championships are won by goals scored, not goods sold, and the Dutchman has provided goals aplenty since being acquired from PSV Eindhoven in April 2001 for $29.5 million.

He settled in immediately and began repaying Manchester United right away. In two seasons, he has won over the stellar cast of internationals.

Just listen:

"I've been privileged to play with a lot of good strikers and Ruud is up there with them," Wales winger Ryan Giggs said. "Ruud has a bit of everything. He can also dribble and is prepared to take players on. The thing, too, is that he is still young and is going to get better."

Added England defender Phil Neville: "Like all great strikers he has this self-belief that he is going to score. Since he pulled on a Manchester United jersey, he looks like he was made to play for this club."

And from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Norwegian who probably will take Beckham's place out on the flank: "He is one of the best in the world. It's the speed, accuracy and power of his finishing that is so good. Goalkeepers don't know when he's going to shoot.

"He can create chances, and he is not only scoring goals but is holding the ball up well. He's strong and physical and makes space for us as well."

These comments, like others made in English newspapers and on Manchester United's Web site over the last two seasons, reflect the belief that United's players have in the striker defender Rio Ferdinand has called "the predator in the box."

But even predators can go hungry.

At the beginning of Manchester United's 2002-03 championship season, Van Nistelrooy went through a scoring drought. Characteristically, he remained calm and, equally in character, he simply worked harder.

"I accept it is inevitable that people will be looking at me to score the goals and will always look at my figures, but I'm not panicking," he told the Manchester Evening News at the time.

By the end of the season, the Dutchman had scored a record 44 goals in all competitions, becoming the first Manchester United player since Scottish legend Denis Law more than three decades ago to reach 40 goals in a season.

Ferguson gave Van Nistelrooy almost all the praise for United's come-from-way-behind title victory.

"I think Ruud's form has without question been the deciding factor," he told the club's official Web site. "When a center-forward like that scores the number of goals in the important games that he has, it has to be the difference.

"I knew he was going to become a great player ... but he has surprised me almost every week."

On Sunday, it might be Club America's turn to be surprised.

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