Is van the man? Or will Kluivert continue as the Chosen One? The question was still echoing around Hampden Park last night as the Netherlands completed their final training session for today's Euro 2004 play-off against Scotland.
The Oranje comprise a squad of individual brilliance, not least up front, but doubts over who Dick Advocaat will field in attack persisted. The Dutch team's recent history of in-fighting, managerial favourtism, petulant outbursts and touchline dust-ups has only thickened the plot.
The selection dilemma boils down to whether to pick Barcelona's Patrick Kluivert or Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy to start. Recent history would suggest the former will get the nod, spearheading a 4-4-1-1 formation and playing just ahead of Ajax's dynamic 20-year-old, Rafael van der Vaart. But typically, the process has not been simple. A rumour from the Dutch camp last night suggested that Advocaat will shock the Scots by starting with Van Nistelrooy. "I expect to start," Van Nistelrooy said. Advocaat said: "I will make the decision tomorrow."
Advocaat's options would have most international coaches purring in anticipation. Kluivert is the archetypal striker's striker, an old-fashioned forward whose game is based around his physical presence and his ability in the box. He has scored a remarkable 40 goals in 73 international appearances (Dennis Bergkamp got 36 in 79) and six in 14 under Advocaat.
Van Nistelrooy, no shrinking violet himself, is capable of exquisite finishing but likes to roam deep, hustling for possession. His international tally is 11 goals in 27 games but only three goals under Advocaat.
The coach has back-up in the shape of Bayern Munich's Roy Makaay, one of Europe's most prolific attackers. Pierre van Hooijdonk also remains a threat at 33 and would take pleasure in spoiling Scotland's day on his return to Glasgow, where he scored 56 goals for Celtic in two years in the mid-1990s. And the squad does not even have room for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who has scored seven goals for Chelsea since August.
Yet each of the strikers comes with baggage and attitude, from Van Hooijdonk - 11 goals in 34 internationals - who recoined the phrase "striker's striker" at Nottingham Forest, to Makaay, whose achievements in European club football have not been matched on the international stage, with just three goals from 25 caps.
Van Nistelrooy damaged his relationship with Advocaat in September when he swore at his manager and kicked a water bottle after being substituted against the Czech Republic. He was subsequently dropped.
Kluivert has not been in great form at the Nou Camp, although he did score last weekend in the 2-1 win over Real Betis. More significantly, there is needle between him and Van Nistelrooy. The Manchester United man, a consummate non-boozing pro, is known not to think too highly of Kluivert's fondness for a post-match session. The squad has umpteen other splits based on either personality clashes, superiority complexes, the PSV-Ajax divide - or all three.
The rivalry between Van Nistelrooy and Kluivert came to boiling point in the Czech Republic game. With the Dutch losing 2-1, Van Nistelrooy was taken off and replaced by Van Hooijdonk while Kluivert stayed on. That was too much for Van Nistelrooy, who believed he might score an equaliser that would have seen the Netherlands progress directly to Portugal next summer. Instead they lost 3-1 and were consigned to the play-offs.
Advocaat has said repeatedly that a Kluivert-Van Nistelrooy partnership, at the expense of a different second striker, is not an option. "I won't use them as a combination," he has said. "I'll stick with Kluivert. He has the most phenomenal goal record in Holland's history. When he has a bad night, he still scores."
Yet on Thursday he added that "there are one or two details which I will sort out in the remaining training sessions". The same day, in a final training session on home turf before flying to Scotland, he played Van Nistelrooy up front in his "first team", with Kluivert in the "reserves". The Manchester United striker failed to score while Kluivert sizzled with a hat-trick.
The Dutch have maintained they can ease through the play-offs. This optimism has ranged from Clarence Seedorf's assertion that Scotland are no-hopers ("We have better players than Scotland and top players deserve to be playing in major championships") to Advocaat laying his job on the line. "If we don't qualify, then I quit," he said. He has praised Scotland's passion and commitment yet ultimately damned them against whoever he picks in attack by saying: "Scotland are not very good at defending and organising."
For the record, the last time the sides met was in a friendly in Arnhem in April 2000. The Dutch started with Bergkamp, Hasselbaink and Makaay. Kluivert came on at half-time and Van Hooijdonk also featured. Using five top-class forwards they managed a 0-0 draw.
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