Huntelaar, the new Dutch goal machine
Called the world's best penalty-area predator by Louis van Gaal, the Real Madrid striker is set to savage Scotland.
Saturday 28 March 2009
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, aka "The Hunter", is shaping up to become one of the all-time great Netherlands forwards and has already been compared to Marco van Basten. He joined Real Madrid from Ajax for the thick end of £20m in January and during one recent game no lesser an authority than the veteran coach Louis van Gaal said: "In the box, he is the best player in the world, bar none."
All this should be troubling enough for Scotland, who face the Netherlands in World Cup qualifying in Amsterdam tonight. But the murmurs from the Dutch camp yesterday suggested that Huntelaar is not just an option to face the Scots, but the likely spearhead in Bert van Marwijk's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
The 25-year-old is one of four Real Madrid players in the squad, along with the former Chelsea player Arjen Robben and midfielders Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. Also in contention for slots in today's "forward four" are Arsenal's Robin van Persie and Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel. A trio of Robben-Sneijder-Van Persie is mooted, but Kuyt's form could force him into the equation.
What seems less in doubt is that "The Hunter" will be unleashed on Scotland, who conceded six goals last time they played in the Amsterdam Arena, and, with a depleted squad, will be massive underdogs again.
So how good is Huntelaar? In statistical terms, extraordinary, averaging well above a goal every other game for his clubs and for his country (both at Under-21 and senior level) for more than six years.
He made only one senior appearance in the first season of his senior career – which was at PSV Eindhoven, under Guus Hiddink, in 2002-03. But he exploded into life on loan at second-tier AGOVV, and has continued in the same style since at Heerenveen, Ajax and now at Real.
All told, he has scored 143 league goals in 194 games, for a strike rate of 0.74 goals per game. At Real, where he has hit eight goals in 11 games, that rate is still 0.72. At international level, he scored 18 in 22 for the Under-21s and has netted 11 times in 19 games (0.58 per game) for the grown-up Oranje. That makes him the most prolific man in the current squad in terms of goals per game, way ahead of Van der Vaart (13 in 65), Van Persie (12 in 34) and Robben (10 in 37).
Only Faas Wilkes and Johan Cruyff in the post-war era have better Dutch international goals-per-game stats, with Huntelaar ahead of Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Van Basten in those terms, albeit at a relatively early stage of his career.
"We all thought it was an amazing thing for Louis van Gaal to praise Huntelaar like that," says Mike Verweij, a senior writer with De Telegraaf, the Netherlands' biggest-selling newspaper. "But Huntelaar is proving it correct."
Verweij knows a thing or two about Dutch strikers, having covered the team for years and worked closely with the players. He collaborated on Kluivert's autobiography. He also acknowledges that while many Dutch fans knew Huntelaar was a decent player, there were doubts until recently that he would maintain that at exalted levels.
"In Holland people had doubts when he went to Real Madrid, whether he could make a smooth and successful transition and keep on scoring a lot of goals but he has," Verweij says. "And he thinks he would have scored even more if he'd had more assistance from Robben."
In a Dutch squad historically notorious for internal strife and ego problems, Verweij says Huntelaar is "a genuine team player. He's a really nice guy, down to earth, quiet, nothing seems to faze him. We think of him as 'Mr Cool'. Away from football he likes nothing better than to go fishing, and enjoy some peace and quiet."
Verweij's comment on Huntelaar and Robben alludes to a recent spat between the pair at Real. On 14 March they beat Athletic Bilbao 5-2. Huntelaar scored twice and Robben once. Huntelaar did not join in Robben's goal celebration. The Spanish press reported the striker had asked Robben why he did not pass the ball. Robben allegedly said "Shut up" and Huntelaar responded "Don't tell me to shut up." A conciliatory handshake was later offered by Robben and declined.
Huntelaar then made apparently loaded comments to the media when he told them: "It is paramount for us to play as a team. We were strong in Bilbao because of this. I play for my team, not for myself."
In recent days Huntelaar has said "there is no problem between us". The consensus is there is a "non-serious difference" between the pair.
That is not something the Scots will want to hear.
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