At his wedding, Ruud van Nistelrooy was one of the best strikers in the world, loved by the fans and feared by the opposing defenders. Of all? No, because the Dutchman also found his kryptonite. A defense chain that Van Nistelrooy still remembers with horror.
In the 2004/05 season, van Nistelrooy was at the peak of his career, having hit Manchester United in the Champions League with eight goals in five group matches in the round of 16.
In the round of the last 16 it was against AC Milan. A club full of world-class players. Andriy Shevchenko in the storm, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso in midfield. But the showpiece was the Rossoneri’s defense line.
Milan conceded only three goals in the group stage. The offensives of the opposing team did not get any further than the chain around Cafu, Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini. And Manchester United must also painfully experience the qualities of this quartet.
Van Nistelrooy: ‘It was terrible’
“Playing against the Italian defense was terrible,” Van Nistelrooy said in an interview with the Oxford Union.
While it is common today in 2022 for fullbacks to go the way forward, even in four-defender systems, it was very different at Milan under coach Carlo Ancelotti. “They all fell behind”, said the now 45-year-old Van Nistelrooy: “It was more important for them not to score a goal than to score one themselves.”
This tactical orientation combined with the individual class of Cafu, Stam, Nesta and Maldini also presented Van Nistelrroy with an insurmountable mystery. But it wasn’t just the four that were the problem. “It was unbelievable. And then they had Gattuso in front of them. I thought they would kill me if I had the ball,” said Van Nistelrooy, thinking back to the two games.
Man United coaching legend Sir Alex Ferguson even decided against the starting eleven of his top striker in the first leg, Van Nistelrooy just came off the bench. The Red Devils lost 1-0 at Old Trafford.
Van Nistelrooy at Real Madrid: Accurate – and often injured
For the return leg, Ferguson switched from a 4-3-3 system to a 4-4-2 with van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney, but the result was the same. Once again Milan won 1-0, for United the competition was over. “You also had Pirlo and Seedorf, the strongest man in football. It was a very tough evening, I didn’t even come close to a diploma”, Van Nistelrooy looked back.
Milan reached the legendary Istanbul final that same year, when the Italians lost a 3-0 lead to Liverpool FC within minutes and lost on penalties. Van Nistelrooy left Manchester a year later after a dispute with Ferguson for Real Madrid. He also proved his qualities with the royal team, becoming the top scorer in his first year in Spain. Two championships followed, in which he played an increasingly smaller role due to injuries.
In January 2010, the 70-time international moved to Hamburger SV for a year and a half before concluding his final professional season for FC Malaga in the 2011/12 season. Van Nistelrooy, who won five national championships, was denied an international title in his career.