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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 October, 2004, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Ruthless Ruud's cutting edge
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer

Ruud van Nistelrooy may be afforded legendary status at Manchester United's "Theatre of Dreams" - but the adulation stops well short of hero worship inside the dressing room of arch-rivals Arsenal.

Ruud van Nistelrooy has until Tuesday to respond to his FA charge

The Dutch master marksman is believed to be hugely unpopular with the Gunners after a spate of incidents in the past two seasons.

The open animosity Van Nistelrooy provokes at Highbury only increases his popularity at Old Trafford - and his importance to United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson is only too happy to have any psychological hold over his fierce rivals, hence his willingness to announce that manager Arsene Wenger "has a mental problem" with Van Nistelrooy.

If Ferguson detects a Gunners weakness about Van Nistelrooy, trust the old street-fighter to probe it.

Arsenal's main gripe is that they believe that while Van Nistelrooy is only to happy to indulge in the physical side of the game, he is not as happy when the punishment comes the other way.

The Gunners have scarcely concealed their contempt in the last two seasons, especially in clashes at Old Trafford.

He was accused of diving to get Patrick Vieira sent off in last season's "Battle of Old Trafford" when he was virtually mugged by a succession of Arsenal players in disgraceful scenes seconds after missing a penalty in the dying seconds.

And he was back in the black book again after an horrific over-the-top tackle on Ashley Cole that earned him a deserved three-match suspension as United ended Arsenal's 49-match unbeaten league run with a 2-0 win at Old Trafford.

Van Nistelrooy, however, would not be human if he also had open disregard for the Gunners after the shameful way he was manhandled at Old Trafford last season - and it would take a special individual to wipe that treatmen from his memory bank.

The tackle on Cole infuriated Wenger in particular, with Van Nistelrooy understood to be now considering legal action against the Arsenal boss after claiming he was branded a "cheat".

Van Nistelrooy cuts an amiable public figure, but it is clear there is another side to the man who can rightly claim to be one of modern game's great strikers.

Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates the win over Arsenal
Wenger's obviously got a mental problem with Ruud

He has pace, power and a natural goalscoring gift that still makes him the crucial element of United's hopes of success at home and abroad this season, despite the arrivals of Alan Smith and 27m former Everton teenager Wayne Rooney.

In Holland, comparisons were made between Van Nistelrooy and the legendary Holland striker Marco van Basten, a likeness analysed by former Holland coach Rinus Michels, the inventor of the so-called "Total Football."

He said: "They are both excellent players, although Van Basten was more of an all-round striker. Van Nistelrooy is a more decisive finisher that Van Basten. He is excellent at going for goal and is speedy and dangerous."

Old Trafford insiders reveal Van Nistelrooy has an occasionally aloof, cold-blooded edge that sets him apart from the ordinary stars, and is also not afraid to be outspoken in his pursuit of success.

Van Nistelrooy's mental strength was demonstrated by the way he fought back from a potentially career-threatening injury in 2000.

He failed a medical because of a knee injury after an 18.5m move from PSV Eindhoven was agreed, subsequently seriously damaging knee ligaments in a training ground incident.

Former Holland coach Dick Advocaat
Van Nistelrooy publicly criticised Dick Advocaat

But he battled back and completed the switch 12 months later.

This could be the reason why Van Nistelrooy has such an acute sense of self-preservation, allowing him to survive the closest attentions from Premiership defenders.

Van Nistelrooy crossed the line in his challenge with Cole, but Ferguson will simply believe this is a demonstration of the ruthless edge every great striker needs.

And if it upsets Arsenal's equilibrium in the process, Ferguson will be even happier.

Van Nistelrooy is more than happy to fight his corner on and off the field, as was proved recently when he tangled with Sparta Prague's Pavel Pergl in the Champions League.

He was cleared of using an elbow, but this is a man who is clearly not to be trifled with.

Van Nistelrooy is not slow to fight his corner verbally, jousting with then Holland coach Dick Advocaat when he was furious at being replaced during a Euro 2004 qualifier against the Czech Republic.

He told Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad: "Considering the fact that he substitutes me systematically, I don't feel any trust in him."

And he did not cover himself in glory at the championships, being handed a two-match ban after branding Swedish referee Anders Frisk "a home whistler" and of ruling "everything in favour of Portugal" during their semi-final defeat.

This may lead to criticism of Van Nistelrooy, but put all the pieces together and Manchester United believe they make up the best goalscorer in the Premiership.

And if that is not to Arsene Wenger or Arsenal's liking, so much the better.

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