Van Nistelrooy plans vintage performance in 'El Clasico'

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The Independent Football

Manchester United versus Liverpool tomorrow might have been one of those moments when Ruud van Nistelrooy regretted leaving Old Trafford. But he will be too busy preparing for what he calls "the biggest game in the universe" to give it a second thought.

Real Madrid entertain Barcelona tomorrow evening and Van Nistelrooy, 30, has hit top form at just the right time. The man who scored 150 goals for United only to be sold in the summer will lead the line for Real as they look to take advantage of a Barça side still rocking from their defeat to Chelsea on Wednesday.

Madrid's midweek display was much more impressive than Barça's and Van Nistelrooy scored his 50th Champions' League goal with an exquisite lob in the 4-1 victory over Steaua Bucharest. Suddenly, despite trailing by five points in La Liga, Real Madrid, and not Barcelona, are the bookmakers' favourites to win "El Clasico".

Van Nistelrooy said: "United versus Liverpool is the closest thing to this in England - a game that people wait the whole year for and where the atmosphere is so intense. But this fixture is different to anything else. The whole world will be watching Real Madrid against Barcelona - it's the biggest game in the universe. It's the match that every player would love to play in."

The "whole world" might even include Sir Alex Ferguson, to whom Van Nistelrooy is desperate to prove a point. Asked if the United manager wrote off the Dutchman too soon when he sanctioned his sale to Real, Ruud's captain at Madrid, Raul, said: "Ruud is proving the class player he is. He is scoring goals for Real Madrid. But he is giving the team so much more than just goals and you get the impression he is going to get better and better through the season."

Van Nistelrooy is scoring a goal every other game in La Liga and the manager Fabio Capello is showing the kind of faith in him that Ferguson first showed when he signed him from PSV Eindhoven. While Raul, Ronaldo and David Beckham have all missed games Van Nistelrooy is the sole exception to the new Italian manager's strict rotation policy.

The Dutch striker's arrival in Madrid reunited him with Beckham but only once this season has he played a full 90 minutes with him. Beckham has been a substitute or substituted in eight of Real's nine games this season and will sit out the visit of Barça tomorrow. The former England captain has a knee strain but trained yesterday and is out of the side on merit rather than because of injury.

Van Nistelrooy praised the way Beckham had accepted his new squad role. "He is being very positive, obviously he is not enjoying being on the bench but you should see him in the dressing-room and the way he supports his team-mates."

The Dutchman arrived at Real after the "untouchables" era - when Beckham and Raul were part of a group who played every game regardless of the coach's opinions. Things have changed under the president Ramon Calderon and Capello. Raul said: "Beckham has not played as much as he would have liked this season. But he is a great player and we are going to need all the players in our squad this season."

Beckham will not be needed tomorrow. At least not from the start. But Real, with Ronaldo suspended, will be relying on Van Nistelrooy. The Dutchman is desperate to not to let his side down. And another audacious lob like his midweek gem wouldn't be bad. "The opportunity to score like that might arise on Sunday and if it does I won't hesitate to try it again," he said.