In his heyday, Ruud van Nistelrooy was one of the best strikers in the world, loved by fans and feared by opponents’ defenses. from everyone? No, because the Dutchman also found his kryptonite. A defense chain that van Nistelrooy still thinks back on with horror today.
In the 2004/05 season, van Nistelrooy was at the peak of his career, in the Champions League he shot Manchester United into the round of 16 with eight goals in five group matches.
the round of 16 was against AC Milan. A club packed with world-class players. Andriy Shevchenko in front, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso in midfield. But the showpiece was Rossoneri’s defense.
Milan conceded just three goals into the group stage. Opposing offensives could not find a way past the chain around Cafu, Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini. And Manchester United should also painfully experience the qualities of this quartet.
Van Nistelrooy: “It was awful”
“Playing against Italian defense was terrible,” van Nistelrooy said in an interview with The OxfordUnion once back.
Although it is common today in 2022 for backs to move forward in systems with a back-fourer, it was very different in Milan under coach Carlo Ancelotti. “They were all left behind,” explained the now 45-year-old van Nistelrooy: “It was more important for them not to get a goal than to score one themselves.”
This tactical approach paired with the individual class of Cafu, Stam, Nesta and Maldini also gave van Nistelrroy an insurmountable puzzle. But not only the four were the problem. “It was incredible. And then they had Gattuso in front of them. I thought they would kill me if I had the ball,” van Nistelrooy recalled of the two matches.
Man United coaching legend Sir Alex Ferguson even decided against his top striker starting eleven in the first game, van Nistelrooy only came off the bench. The Red Devils lost 1-0 at home at Old Trafford.
Van Nistelrooy at Real Madrid: On goal – and often injured
Ferguson then switched from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 with van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney for the second game, but the result was the same. Milan won again 1-0, for United the competition was over. “They also had Pirlo and Seedorf, the strongest man in football. It was a really tough night, I was not even close to graduating,” van Nistelrooy recalled.
Milan reached the legendary final in Istanbul the same year when the Italians spilled a 3-0 lead against Liverpool in a matter of minutes and lost on penalties. Van Nistelrooy left Manchester for Real Madrid a year later after a dispute with Ferguson. He also proved his qualities with Los Blancos and became the top scorer in his first year in Spain. Two championships followed, in which he played an increasingly minor role due to an injury.
In January 2010, the 70-time national team player went to Hamburger SV for a year and a half before completing his last professional season for FC Malaga in the 2011/12 season. Van Nistelrooy, who was national champion five times, was denied an international title in his career.