Thursday, November 3, 2005

Van Nistelrooy tries to explain crisis

Van Nistelrooy saw the trudge over to the corner of the Stade de France, where the Manchester United fans who had bothered to stay to the end were standing, a few claps and a resigned shrug of the shoulders. Some United supporters responded with V-signs.

Ruud would not forget his short time as captain of Man. United and he might have wondered what - when his agent, Roger Linse, appears so keen to dangle his name in front of Real Madrid and Barcelona - he was doing out there at all.

"Is this our most difficult time?" he said when asked if he had known a crisis like this. "Yes, it must be. When I came here 4½ years ago, we were unbeatable but I have committed myself to the club and now, in the bad times, I want to give it my all and get Manchester United back to where I want to see them. I am not off."

The great Dutchman might have a long wait for United to regain this lost summit. When he scored the winner against Benfica - one of only two goals United have managed in this campaign - it was his 38th in 41 starts. It is an astonishing strike-rate, but what is more surprising is that only once have these goals brought him anywhere near a European Cup.

It seems unlikely he will be returning to Paris in May for the final unless United can address an abysmal run of away results. In 2½ seasons they have played 10 away games in Europe, of which two have been won - against Rangers and Panathinaikos, the last in November 2003. In the last five matches they have not managed so much as a goal, and now they are stumbling within the walls of their own fortress. Should they fail to beat Villarreal at Old Trafford later this month, there is a real possibility that a side who have failed even to make the quarter-finals of the European Cup in the past two seasons will not clear the group stages for the first time since 1994.

With United's aircraft due to depart Charles de Gaulle Airport on Wednesday night, Van Nistelrooy might not have had time to list all the reasons why the club have declined so sharply. However, he did his best.

"We are not playing well, we have difficulties keeping the ball. It is not fluent when the ball goes from player to player and we don't have fluent attacks. We don't tend to play in the opponents' half, with good crosses coming in and winning the second ball. We don't put teams under pressure and our confidence seems to be down."

Specifically, Van Nistelrooy thought the service that once fuelled his shooting had begun to run very dry indeed. "Things are different now. I remember games when I was having four or five chances, constant service, which is great. I enjoy that but now it is very different and I have to give my all in this situation."

It is quite a list for United's management to correct before the champions arrive at Old Trafford on Sunday. They might yet attack Chelsea with all the edge they displayed when Arsenal came to Manchester last October in search of their 50th Premiership match without defeat. They would probably settle now for a stalemate and Van Nistelrooy did not pretend the two teams would be meeting on equal terms.

"When you compare our squad with Chelsea's in terms of numbers, that says it all. Whether they play team one or team two, they are both full of internationals who have been at World Cups. You can't compare them with any other team."