A triple crown for King Ruud

When the final whistle sounded in their match with Real Majorca, it meant Real Madrid had won their thirtieth domestic championship, a Spanish record. But at the same time, another page of football history was also being written, as by finishing the season as top scorer in La Liga, Ruud van Nistelrooy became the first player to become champion marksman in three different European leagues.

After previously topping the Dutch and English goalscoring charts, the Merengue attacker has added to his collection the title of Pichichi, supreme sharpshooter in the Spanish first division.Having cut his teeth at FC Den Bosh, it was in the colours of PSV Eindhoven in the 1998/99 season that the Dutchman embarked on a red-hot goalscoring career streak that has continued unabated.

Over the course of that campaign, he clocked up 31 goals in 34 encounters, a personal goal glut maintained the following season with 29 strikes in… 23 matches! Such free-scoring exploits were enough to earn him a move to European giants Manchester United, where he promptly outgunned his Premier league competitors with 25 successful efforts in 2003.

Ahead of the all-time greats
Finishing top of the scorers' tables in two different leagues is a rarity in itself. The first player ever to achieve this feat was 'the gentle giant' John Charles, a Welshman who reigned supreme first in England (with Leeds in 1957) and then in Italy (with Juventus in 1958).

During the 1980s, a certain Marco van Basten, currently Van Nistelrooy's coach in the Dutch national team, made the nets of the Netherlands (Ajax 1984, 1987) and then Italy (AC Milan, 1990, 1992) billow in record style.

More recently, the three Brazilians Romario and Ronaldo (Netherlands and Spain) and Marcio Amoroso (Italy and Germany), along with the Italian Cristian Vieri (Spain and Italy), have added their names to this elite circle. But now Van Nistlerooy has formed his own breakaway club.

In what was his first full campaign on the Iberian peninsula, the Dutchman left La Liga's keepers flailing on no less than 25 occasions, thereby ending a title-free spell for the Galacticos spanning three years. For an institution voted greatest club of the 20 th century by FIFA, what might be seen as a brief barren period for any other club was tantamount to an eternity.

Similarly, the road to renewed personal success for the striker has been far from smooth.After falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson, he left the Red Devils' fold only grudgingly. "It was hard to leave United. It broke my heart, but I knew I had to bounce back," declared the striker after the match that secured the Spanish title for Real. "I took it all as a new source of motivation to give 100% and start from scratch."

Deadly rather than dazzling
Starting from scratch meant first abandoning idol status at Old Trafford to try to win over the demanding public at the Santiago Bernabeu. On resumption of business after last summer's break, Madrid's manager Fabio Capello spelled out the tone for the campaign: in order to secure the title, results would take precedence over entertainment.

Such a message can scarcely have delighted the socios, but it duly brought them end-of-season exultation in the Plaza de Cibeles. And there is not better illustration of this new modesty that that of van Nistelrooy: never spectacular but always clinical, Van Gol, as the fans have rechristened him, has steered Real back to the pinnacle of Spanish football courtesy of his instinctive eye for goal.

Earlier in the marathon of the league season, with the Merengues trailing in the table behind Barcelona and Seville, the former PSV player had struggled to keep up with the pace set by Ronaldinho, Frederic Kanoute and Diego Milito. But on entering the final sprint, he dug deep to summon up goal after goal and carry the Casa Blanca along on his shoulders.

On target in all seven matches prior to the final match day, his timely contributions ensured Real could not be outstripped in a title race that went right to the wire.

Of his 33 strikes in all competitions this season, the Oranje international will no doubt most relish the memory of the one that tipped the title race Real's way at Zaragoza on the penultimate match day. With the Romareda 2-1 in front and their rivals the Blaugrana leading by the same score against Espanyol, it looked as though the La Liga crown Real craved would elude them.

But that was when the hand of fate, in the form of the boot of Ruud, intervened, seizing on a loose clearance by the goalkeeper to make it 2-2 in stoppage time. It may not have been spectacular, but it was the epitome of efficiency.

"I saw our fans celebrating the goal while I was running back towards the centre circle. I couldn't understand why they were going crazy when we'd only equalised," recalls the man from Holland's Brabant region. "So I turned towards the scoreboard, and then I understood."

For at the same moment, Barca had conceded and kissed their title hopes goodbye.The following weekend, Real were crowned champions and van Nistelrooy declared king of the strikers. "I never imagined I would experience a first season like this, scoring 25 times and winning the league," marvelled the first player to achieve this feat in three different countries.

"Not many players are blessed with his poacher's instinct" was how coach Capello explained the proficiency of his target man. "But his success is also down to working fiendishly hard in training."Ironically, the figures show that even with the season's Pichichi among their ranks, Real recorded their lowest goals tally (66) since the 1999/2000 season.The fact that 25 of these were supplied by Ruud attests to the Dutchman's influential role in his new club's triumph.

"It's always good when you know all the hard work's paid off, and it's especially a great honour to be part of a team like this," he adds modestly. And as the champagne corks popped in celebration of the club's 30th title success, the feeling among his team-mates was no doubt mutual.