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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 March, 2003, 14:22 GMT
Van Nistelrooy sends Man Utd top
David Beckham congratulates Ruud van Nistelrooy on his Old Trafford hat-trick
Van Nistelrooy celebrates his Old Trafford treble
Man Utd 3-0 Fulham

Ruud van Nistelrooy struck one of the goals of the season as his hat-trick sent Manchester United to the top of the Premiership for the first time in a year.

Van Nistelrooy ran from his own half to strike with a dazzling solo effort midway through the second half and kill off any lingering resistance from a stubborn Fulham side.

A last-minute deflected volley completed his fourth hat-trick for United and, having struck the first-half penalty that had broken the deadlock, Van Nistelrooy took his tally to 32 goals in 44 games this season.

Fulham had chances of their own, including a Martin Djetou shot that hit the bar, but United dominated the game and deserved their win.

It was Van Nistelrooy's dazzling second strike that caught the eye.

Van Nistelrooy shrugged off Sylvain Legwinski's lame appeals for a foul and spun clear of the midfielder in the centre circle.

Running clear of another challenge, Van Nistelrooy then raced between two more Fulham shirts and skipped past last defender Andy Melville before beating goalkeeper Maik Taylor with a delightful control and finish.

The victory was no more than the home side deserved.

Sir Alex Ferguson's side started with real passion, a glint in their eyes that only the sight of a return to the Premiership summit could bring.

Abdeslam Ouaddou was fortunate that his second-minute trip on Ryan Giggs was seen as accidental by referee Steve Bennett.

And Taylor had to be alert to keep out Van Nistelrooy's low shot after the Dutch striker had spun away from Zak Knight.

Knight was only playing at the heart of Fulham's defence because of Alain Goma's late withdrawal through injury and the young defender was given the runaround by Van Nistelrooy early on.

Knight was again left trailing as the striker saw a shot tipped over by Taylor and Paul Scholes sent a rasping drive just over from the edge of the box.

Melville was also forced to scramble a Giggs toe-poke off his own line as the visitors came under massive pressure early on.

10 mins: Giggs toe-poke cleared off line by Melville
44 mins: Van Nistelrooy opens scoring from penalty spot
68 mins: Stunning individual goal from Van Nistelrooy seals victory
90 mins: Van Nistelrooy grabs his hat-trick with a deflected effort
But Fulham's response confounded their haul of a mere eight points on the road this season.

The lively Steed Malbranque was a bag of tricks on both sides of the pitch and his clever work set up Djetou for a sidefoot effort that smacked against the crossbar with Fabien Barthez reduced to the role of spectator.

Louis Saha saw a neat effort fly just wide but United were quick to wrestle back control and deserved their breakthrough on the stroke of half-time.

Taylor was still dusting himself down from a fine save to keep out a deflection from his own defender Knight when he found himself facing a penalty.

Djetou was the guilty party, tugging at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's arm as the striker looked to turn, and Van Nistelrooy was quick to exact retribution with an unstoppable spot kick into the bottom left-hand corner.

But that was just the appetiser to Van Nistelrooy's extravagant main course as Manchester United satisfied their obvious hunger to bring Arsenal's 18-week stay at the top of the table to an end.

An injury-time volley from Giggs' cross deflected off the luckless Jon Harley to seal Van Nistelrooy's hat-trick - and a vital victory from Ferguson's side.

Manchester United: Barthez, Gary Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, O'Shea, Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Giggs, Solskjaer, van Nistelrooy.
Subs not used: Blanc, Ricardo, Forlan, Fortune, Fletcher.

Booked: Gary Neville, Ferdinand.

Fulham: Taylor, Ouaddou, Knight, Melville, Harley, Malbranque, Legwinski, Boa Morte, Djetou, Saha, Marlet.
Subs not used: Herrera, Inamoto, Clark, Sava, Wome.

Booked: Melville.

Attendance: 67,706

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Man Utd boss Sir Alex Ferguson
"We played with confidence"

Fulham boss Jean Tigana
"Van Nistelrooy and Solskjaer played very well"



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