On 8 April 2003, Real Madrid took on Manchester United in the quarter-final of the Champions League. Making the most of their home advantage, Los Blancos raced into a 2-0 lead during the first half, and when the mercurial Raul added a third just after the break the tie was as good as over. Their opponents grabbed a late away goal, providing enough hope for them to fight on, but a recovery wasn't likely. After all, this was the Madrid of Zidane, Ronaldo and their fellow Galacticos.
In the return leg, however, United came surprisingly close. They won the battle but not the war, beating Madrid 4-3 at Old Trafford and, ultimately, being knocked out of the competition. The game went down as a Champion's League classic. In fact, The Guardian cites it as the inspiration for Roman Abramovich, who was a guest that night, to buy Chelsea in the summer.
"It's the game I've played with the most top-class players on one pitch," says former United and Real striker Ruud van Nistlerooy, who played for the English side that night before moving to Spain three years later. "Casillas, Fernando Hierro, Roberto Carlos, Makelele, Guti, Ronaldo, Zidane, Figo; and then the United players: Scholes, Giggs, Keane. It was crazy – what a game."
Despite being the eventual winners of the match, the second leg didn't start well for United. Within 12 minutes they were behind, with the Brazilian Ronaldo giving Madrid a crucial away goal. Just before half-time, however, Van Nistlerooy provided a lifeline. "It wasn't a difficult goal," he remembers. "I think Solskjaer played the ball in and I got in front of Salgado. I held him off and I was able to play the ball past Casillas… at least it [gave us] a hope."
It wasn't much hope, however: Ronaldo scored twice more to put the tie well beyond United, despite an Ivan Helguera own goal and two strikes from David Beckham, another future Galactico. "There was a big hype around his situation," remembers Van Nistlerooy. "He scored two and [at] the end of the season he left for Madrid. That was the start of that."
Even though this was part of Beckham's extended and inevitable exit from United, it was Ronaldo's hat-trick that proved to be the highlight. "He got a standing ovation from Old Trafford when he got substituted. I was clapping as well, everybody was clapping," says Van Nistlerooy of the Brazilian's virtuoso performance. "What can you do? Just hold your hands up: 'Fucking hell, its amazing, well done. I want to be like that.'" This was Ronaldo at the peak of his unstoppable powers, a year after winning the World Cup with Brazil, after which Real Madrid dropped almost €50 million to bring him to the Bernabéu.
Beckham, Van Nistlerooy and United were out of the Champions League, but after going so close against a team of Galacticos, you don't just give up. The positives from the game would take a while to sink in, but eventually the mood changed. According to Van Nistlerooy, feelings of disappointment were replaced by realisation of how well they had played. The Dutchman explains his thinking as: "If we can perform like this on a football pitch together, it's our obligation to win the league."
And so they did.
In March 2003, Arsenal were running away with the title. They were eight points clear at the top and, despite a post-Christmas resurgence from United, the Gunners looked firmly on course to win the league. By the time Madrid came around, United were pulling close but still needed something to push them over the top. "We kept winning and winning and winning and in the end we caught Arsenal," remembers Van Nistlerooy. "I started scoring and I never stopped scoring. It was amazing, that feeling where you get up and know 'I'm going to score again'; you're so confident because of the run you're on. After that Madrid game, we took that and were like: 'No one is going to beat us'. That feeling is pretty special."
To use a cliché, the game became an advert for football – literally, when you think about how it inspired Abramovich – and that's how it continues to be seen 14 years later. "Still people talk about it: 'Oh, remember that game at Old Trafford, oh what a game,'" says Van Nistlerooy. "And it was, it was one of these games where everyone was saying: 'Football is the greatest thing.'"
That game was good for Van Nistlerooy personally, too. His first-half strike was his 12th of the Champions League campaign, making him top goalscorer for the second time in a row (he also won it two years later in 2005). In each of these three seasons, however, Van Nistlerooy had achieved the personal honour without making it to the final, something he didn't manage during his three years at Real Madrid either. Even today, nearly five years after his retirement, that fact still hangs over the Dutchman. "I would give the three top scorer titles away immediately for a final… what makes it bearable is that I've done everything possible [to achieve it]."
Two years later, Van Nistlerooy himself would be slowly pushed out of Manchester United and into the waiting arms of Real. The meeting between the two teams – the last for a decade – was still fresh in his memory when he made the move, arguably his best chance to reach his ambition and play, just once, in the Champions League Final. The game drove United on to win the domestic title, and set Van Nistlerooy off on a Premier League goalscoring record that wouldn't be broken until Jamie Vardy netted in 11 consecutive games last season.
For Ruud, though, this wasn't just a missed opportunity or an important spur – it was the most fun he'd had playing football. "That game I really enjoyed. As a child you love what you do, and then to keep that a little bit alive is not the worst thing."
Ruud van Nistlerooy was speaking as part of the Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken.