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What Manchester United struggle to do in the Premiership, they cannot stop doing in Europe. So anodyne have they been domestically that Sir Alex Ferguson has joked about picking himself to add a cutting edge to the attack, but two home games in the Champions League have now brought 10 goals after Wednesday night's 4-1 victory over Sparta Prague.
A month ago, it was Wayne Rooney scoring three on his European debut as Fenerbahce were dismissed 6-2; last night Ruud van Nistelrooy outstripped his strike partner, hitting four to take his European tally to 35 in 36 appearances for United as they registered another deceptively edgy victory. A point for United against Lyon in three weeks will be enough to take them into the knockout stages, providing they do not then lose by four against Fenerbahce a fortnight after that.
As a month ago though, a blizzard of goals concealed a multitude of concerns, as Ferguson admitted afterwards. "It was so open it could have been four each after 20 minutes," he said, "but we got the goals that mattered." United were more clinical than Sparta, but they were hardly more convincing defensively.
The opening 15 minutes were remarkably open, Gabriel Heinze's ferocious drive against the post the best of a flurry of chances at both ends. But it was Van Nistelrooy who opened the scoring, receiving a dire back-pass from Jiri Homola, sidestepping the rapidly advancing Jaromir Blazek and rolling the ball home. There was more poor defending 11 minutes later, a half-hit clearance allowing Paul Scholes to burst into the box, where he was felled by Martin Petras. Van Nistelrooy calmly converted the penalty.
Sparta, however, lively and inventive, continued to threaten, and it took a remarkable double save from Roy Carroll just before half-time to keep out Tomas Jun's volley and then, with the help of Gary Neville, the follow-up from Lukas Zelenka. The keeper was powerless, though, as Zelenka dummied Ales Urbanka's through-ball, received the return from Jun and chipped a precise finish eight minutes after half-time.
At that stage there might have been the thought of a wobble, but Van Nistelrooy killed the game on the hour, muscling his way on to Heinze's long pass and lobbing Blazek. Sparta then had Karel Poborsky sent off for a second bookable offence, before Van Nistelrooy rolled home a fourth from Liam Miller's low cross in injury time.
Liverpool moved to second in Group A on goal difference thanks to an impressive 1-0 victory away at Deportivo La Coruña. The goal came courtesy of Deportivo's Jorge Andrade, who turned a cross into his own net in the 14th minute.
Real Madrid lived dangerously away at Dynamo Kiev, going 2-0 down before fighting back for a draw. Raúl scored Real's first goal, his 48th in Champions League football, one short of the European Cup record held by his club predecessor Alfredo Di Stefano.
* England's football team will play Holland in a friendly at Villa Park early next year as part of preparations for the March World Cup qualifiers.
The match against the Dutch, under new coach Marco Van Basten, will take place in Birmingham on February 9.
* Ireland prop Marcus Horan is facing charges of racial abuse following Munster's Heineken Cup match at Neath-Swansea Ospreys on Sunday.
The Welsh team have alleged that Horan, capped 21 times by his country, used racist language towards their Samoa centre Elvis Seveali'i. This is one of three complaints that have been filed by the Ospreys against the loosehead prop. The Welsh have also cited Horan for lashing out with his boot at their wing Richard Mustoe, as well as punching Seveali'i on the head.
The claim of racial abuse is believed to have come from Seveali'i, who says Horan launched a verbal tirade at him after the centre tackled John Kelly too high during the Pool 4 match, which Munster won 20-18.
In return, Munster have cited Mustoe after he appeared to stamp on Horan's head, an injury that needed stitches.
The Ospreys have asked European Rugby Cup, the tournament's organising body, to investigate the serious allegations against the Munster forward. ERC confirmed it had received the complaints, which will now be investigated.
* Tom Lehman, the former Open champion, has been given the job of trying to restore American golfing pride after their heaviest Ryder Cup defeat, two months ago in Detroit. The 45-year-old was on Wednesday night named as captain in succession to Hal Sutton for the first-ever match against Europe on Irish soil at the K Club near Dublin in September 2006.
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