On this day: Ruud van Nistelrooy hat-trick sends Manchester United top

Eleven years ago today, three goals from Ruud van Nistelrooy help Manchester United to overcome Fulham at Old Trafford.

The 2002-03 Premier League title race was like so many of the others from around that time, with Arsenal and Manchester United the main contenders for the major prize.

It was the Gunners that topped the standings by two points with eight matches left to go, but when Fulham made the trip to Old Trafford 11 years ago today, United had the chance to remove the North Londoners, who did not play until the following day against Everton at Highbury.

Although Fulham found themselves within the lower regions of the table, they were tipped to provide the Red Devils with a tough challenge, largely because they'd pushed them all the way in the two encounters during the previous campaign, both of which ended in 3-2 wins for Sir Alex Ferguson's men.

However, in Ruud van Nistelrooy, United had one of the division's most clinical centre-forwards, who went into the fixture having scored 29 goals from his 43 outings in all competitions.

So, after Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes had gone close with efforts during a first half that had been dominated by the hosts, it was down to the Dutch striker to break the deadlock in the 44th minute. After Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been pulled back by Martin Djetou inside the area, Van Nistelrooy stepped up to convert the resultant penalty.

Ruud van Nistelrooy, then of Manchester United, celebrates scoring against Fulham on March 22, 2003.© Getty Images

United continued to dominate proceedings after the restart, but it wasn't until the 68th minute that Van Nistelrooy was able to double their advantage with one of the season's most memorable goals. Having shrugged off the attention of Sylvain Legwinski on the halfway line, he then darted between two Fulham defenders, leaving just Andy Melville in his way. After skipping beyond the centre-back, the United frontman then slotted an instant effort beyond the reach of advancing goalkeeper Maik Taylor.

The former PSV Eindhoven player went on to secure the outcome with stoppage time fast approaching when his deflected strike got the better of Taylor to complete his second hat-trick of the season and his third in a United shirt.

Speaking after the match, winning manager Ferguson said: "It was a fantastic goal. You can't beat Saturdays like this with the atmosphere, the weather, the pitch. It was tremendous to play, and the result and the goals have made it a hell of a day."

Meanwhile, Fulham's Melville added: "We battled well and I didn't think it was a 3-0. They may have taken their foot off the pedal in the second half but I thought we could have got away with a lot less than that."

MAN UNITED: Barthez; G Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, O'Shea; Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Giggs; Solskjaer, Van Nistelrooy

FULHAM: Taylor; Ouaddou, Knight, Melville, Harley; Malbranque, Legwinski, Boa Morte, Djetou; Saha, Marlet

Ryan Giggs in action for Manchester United against Olympiacos on October 10, 2001.
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