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Football: The crying Dutchman; HOW IT'S ALL GONE SO WRONG FOR RUUD.

Byline: David McDonnell

AT the end of last season the prospect of Ruud van Nistelrooy leaving Manchester United seemed as fanciful as Sir Alex Ferguson and David Beckham going on holiday together.

Van Nistelrooy had hit 44 goals in his second season at United, to go with the 36 he scored in his debut campaign at Old Trafford, as Ferguson's side snatched the title from Arsenal.

The Dutchman was about to break Denis Law's 36-year-old European goal-scoring record for United and van Nistelrooy claimed he had found his "spiritual home" at the Theatre of Dreams.

Fast forward 12 months, however, and the scenario could not be more different. A series of bust-ups with United team-mates, a spat with Fergie, and his frustration at United's failure in the Premiership and Champions League have pushed van Nistelrooy nearer the Old Trafford exit door. While United do not want van Nistelrooy to leave, the revelation that Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has met the striker's agent will alarm the Old Trafford hierarchy.

When Real want a player, they usually get him, a point borne out by the signings of Beckham, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Louis Figo in recent seasons.

And with the nine-times European champions ready to launch a pounds 30million bid for the 26-year-old, and having already claimed to have reached a verbal agreement with his agent Roger Linse, United's battle to keep van Nistelrooy is now under way.

It certainly will not have escaped the attention of senior figures at United that the first rumours about Real's interest appear to have been instigated by an off-the-record briefing by Perez.

"You can't get upset about that," said Fergie referring to Madrid's interest earlier in the season. "Real Madrid are renowned for that sort of thing. It has happened with all their signings, not just Beckham, Figo, Ronaldo and Zidane.

"And we're doing our best to make sure it doesn't happen again with Ruud. We have to put the Real issue to one side and concentrate on our relationship with Ruud."Van Nistelrooy signed a new, five-year deal worth pounds 80,000-a-week in January, a move which seemed to cement his future with United and rule out an imminent move elsewhere.

But since then, life at United has been anything but smooth for van Nistelrooy. He incurred Fergie's wrath for claiming the side missed Beckham's influence, and was promptly dropped for the next game against Fulham.

Then he clashed with Roy Keane, who accused van Nistelrooy of losing his appetite for goals since signing his lucrative contract.

And after a training-ground bust-up with fellow striker David Bellion, van Nistelrooy played no part in the 1-0 defeat to Liverpool.

The sense of unease at United over van Nistelrooy's future appears to have spread to Fergie, who only last Friday appeared agitated when asked about the latest batch of rumours.

"You can't trust these people," said Fergie. "You're asking me to trust a Spaniard? Look at Real Madrid. They said they didn't want Ronaldo, they didn't want Beckham, then sign them both."

It would be easy to dismiss Real's interest in van Nistelrooy as a vote-winning pledge by Perez, with the Real presidential elections coming up this summer.

But with Real's season in disarray - they lost in the final of the Spanish Cup, are out of the Champions League and trail Valencia in La Liga - they must make a big signing.

Real's sporting director Jorge Valdano made no secret of their interest in van Nistelrooy last week when he said: "A player like van Nistelrooy would have a place in any team in the world, including Real Madrid. I ask you: who would not want to sign him?" While Fergie is adamant van Nistelrooy is going nowhere, the United plc board would find it hard to resist pounds 30m, a huge fee in today's depressed transfer market.

United face some tough questions over the coming weeks, least of all whether they can afford to part with van Nistelrooy. In terms of the void he would leave, the answer would appear to be an unequivocal 'no'.

But with van Nistelrooy disgruntled and the prospect of pounds 30m on offer to rebuild the squad in a bid to catch Arsenal and conquer Europe again, the answer is far from clear.

CAPTION(S):

THE RUUD AWAKENING: Van Nistelrooy starts to realise his Old Trafford dream is on the rocks; ON HIS WAY: Mirror Sport, April 14; HAS van Nistelrooy lost his focus after clashing with Fergie?
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 29, 2004
Words:748
Previous Article:Football: Who can replace Van the Man?
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