Double Dutch

Sunday 30 December 2001

When they met in the opening match of the season, Manchester United and Fulham lived up to their billing in the clash of the champions - Premiership versus First Division - with one of the games of the campaign so far.

Sunday's rematch at Craven Cottage should be no less vibrant as the irresistible force which is Ruud van Nistelrooy comes face to face with the immovable object of Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.

United striker Van Nistelrooy has been enjoying his best spell of the season, scoring six goals in his past four matches to bring his tally to 17 this season. He was on target twice in United's 3-2 win at Old Trafford but will now face a side which has since become the meanest in the League.

Van der Sar deserves much of the credit for Fulham having kept nine clean sheets, although he admits that this game may be different if he has to face his fellow Dutchman.

He said: 'Ruud is on fire. He has been tremendous in the last couple of games - so maybe Alex Ferguson will give him a rest. I hope so. He is a very talented player and it was no surprise that Ferguson was so patient in signing him.

'He will be determined to win trophies this year and United are really back on their feet now. When I was with Ajax and Juventus, we also had spells of five or six games where things were going against us.

'People were writing us off and saying it was a crisis, but if you have quality you will always bounce back. The league is very close and one small thing could make your year good or bad. If we can score more goals, it's possible to get up to about seventh place, which could be good enough to get us into Europe.'

Van der Sar's confidence is a warning to United and defender Gary Neville would love to be part of a defence as stingy as Fulham's. Neville said: 'It has been important to keep clean sheets recently because that has been a problem for us this season.

'As long as the defence give the platform the attackers in our team deserve, they will score goals and the midfielders will create chances. The longer the game goes on, the more opportunities we tend to create.

'But the defence has to be solid to give us that leeway. It has been important that virtually the same back four have been playing together and our recent defensive record is not bad.'

Ferguson has the chance to name an unchanged side for the first time since February 2000 as the champions seek a fifth successive Premiership win. The 2-0 victory over Everton on Boxing Day means United have scored 14 goals and conceded just one in their past four games.