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The Toe Poke
By ESPN Staff

Ruud's future set to be decided in next 24 hours

Ruud van Nistelrooy's row with Sir Alex Ferguson has cost him an appearance in his old mate Roy Keane's testimonial at Old Trafford tomorrow.

As one of the few United first-team stars to speak up for Keane following the Irishman's well-publicised, but never publicly heard, MUTV lambasting of the Red Devils lamentable performance in their 4-1 defeat at Middlesbrough in October, Van Nistelrooy was looking forward to the chance of meeting up with his old captain again.

Instead, the Dutchman will join him only in his exile from Old Trafford.

Although there has been no official confirmation from any party over Van Nistelrooy's availability to face Celtic, it is understood the 29-year-old has already returned to the Netherlands to begin preparations for this summer's World Cup.

Sir Alex Ferguson is due to speak with United chief executive David Gill in the next 24 hours to determine Van Nistelrooy's future. However, it seems the player's fate has already been sealed and once the World Cup is done, he will begin looking in earnest for a new club.

In truth, the process began some time ago, with Van Nistelrooy having at least one conversation with fellow countryman Clarence Seedorf about the possibility of him linking up with him at AC Milan, a club who are believed to be interested in acquiring the former PSV Eindhoven's services.

Van Nistelrooy has so far opted not to speak out about the accusation from Ferguson that his attitude in training last week was undermining team morale to such an extent that he opted to select 19-year-old Giuseppe Rossi above him for yesterday's win over Charlton.

There is a counter-claim to the perceived theory that Van Nistelrooy walked out of United's team hotel yesterday lunchtime though, with suggestions being raised that the Dutchman - who only last month became one of only eight Manchester United players to score 150 goals for the club - was ordered out by Ferguson.

That presumably came following Van Nistelrooy's negative reaction to learning Rossi had been given a starting spot against Charlton.

It has not gone unnoticed by the striker that Ferguson, having effectively decided Keane's position at United was untenable following his MUTV tirade, has now launched such a public broadside himself.

Whether Van Nistelrooy will opt to break his own silence before Holland face Cameroon in the first of their pre-World Cup friendlies on May 27 remains to be seen but clearly his relationship with Ferguson has deteriorated markedly from the night he stood in the bowels of the Stade de France in November and reflected on an unexpected defeat to Lille just four days after the Middlesbrough debacle.

At the time, with Keane and Gary Neville missing, Van Nistelrooy was United captain. And, though disappointed at the Red Devils downturn in fortunes was apparently determined to pull them through the bad times.

'When I came four and a half years ago, United were unbeatable,' he reflected on that dark Paris night.

'Now, in bad times I just want to give it my all to get United back to where everyone wants to see them.

'I am going nowhere. Over the coming years, it is personal to me to take the club back to where I want to see it.'

At the time, the captain's armband seemed to bring an extra 20% to Van Nistelrooy's game. Ferguson's totally logical decision to hand Neville the honour of permanently replacing Keane as skipper seemed to have the opposite effect.

Ferguson is said to have been intensely unhappy with Van Nistelrooy's performance in the FA Cup defeat to Liverpool on February 21. A week later, he sensationally dropped the striker for the Carling Cup Final win over Wigan.

Louis Saha totally justified his inclusion at the Millennium Stadium and nothing that has happened since would lead any neutral observer to believe United are not a better side with the Frenchman in it.

And, as he reflects on his next career move, that is the bitter truth which will hurt Van Nistelrooy most of all.