Kluivert in ruder health as the Ruud collision awaits

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The Independent Football

When Patrick Kluivert emerged from St James' Park late on Thursday, he was clutching a framed picture. It was not a Vermeer or a Rembrandt, but still a Dutch master of sorts. It was a photograph of the Amsterdammer in action in Newcastle United's 2-0 Uefa Cup cruise.

Against limited opposition, a far-from-dynamic Dynamo Tbilisi, in a nominal contest that had a soporific, testimonial feel to it, Kluivert produced a link-man perfor- mance of Bergkamp quality. His first-time flicked passes were delivered with slide-rule, Pythagoras precision. And all without breaking sweat. It was literally a stroll in the park - of St James' - for the towering Dutchman.

Four months into his new career at Newcastle, Kluivert is getting into the groove as a prompter, if not quite as a razor-sharp predator. As Graeme Souness readily conceded: "Patrick needs half-a- dozen games back to back. He's not match-fit yet. I want to give him 90 minutes on Sunday [Fulham visit Tyneside this afternoon], 90 minutes on Wednesday [when Chelsea come to St James' in the fourth round of the League Cup] and then he'll be ready for Manchester United."

The Newcastle manager had a twinkle in his eye. His Dutch thoroughbred needs match-fitness, but without being flogged through a crowded schedule. On his form of late, however, Kluivert is sure to be in Souness's starting line-up when Man-chester United are in Toon next week. Manchester United and their masterful Dutch marksman, that is.

It promises to be an intriguing confrontation: Ruud van Nistelrooy, at the top of his goalscoring game, against Kluivert, on the way back, seemingly, after losing his way at Barcelona and losing his place not just in the Dutch national side but in the squad, too. A year ago, Kluivert was a fixture in Dick Advocaat's Dutch team. Indeed, he fell out with Van Nistelrooy when the Manchester United man allowed his frustration at his own bit-part treatment to spill into the public arena, kicking over a water bottle when he was substituted in a Euro 2004 qualifier in Prague and accusing Advocaat of being "a coward" for favouring the struggling Kluivert.

When it came to the finals in Portugal, Van was the man on whom Advocaat pinned his attacking faith. Kluivert spent the tournament on the bench. And when Marco van Basten succeeded Advocaat as Dutch coach there was not even a seat in the stands for Kluivert. After a season of Catalan cat-calls in the Nou Camp - with more time on the bench than in the Barcelona team, just eight goals scored and concerns about his partying - his career was at a crossroads.

Thus far at least, swapping the Nou Camp for Newcastle has been a step in the right direction. When Kluivert produced a first-half masterclass against Norwich the week before last, the Newcastle chairman, Freddie Shepherd, expressed his consternation that the player Newcastle will pay £10.5m over three years was not good enough for the Dutch squad. Looking a class apart against Norwich in the League Cup, and against limited opposition in the Uefa Cup, however, is no real measure of international pedigree.

Kluivert was a peripheral figure in the heat of a bruising Premiership battle at Bolton last Sunday. And although he has six goals to his name this season, he lacked sharpness in the finishing department against Tbilisi.

"Patrick didn't play a lot last season, and he hasn't played many games for us," Souness stressed. "The difference up front is that half a yard that can get you a goal. That's the final thing to come when you're a striker who's been injured.

"But Patrick has the potential. He has been one of the top strikers in the world, and if he looks after himself and stays motivated he will be a bargain. If he allows his eye to be taken off the ball he will not achieve what he is capable of, but I have been impressed with his attitude. I've had no problems with him - apart from the dodgy shirts he wears."

Time, if not taste, remains on Kluivert's side. He has been in the spotlight for 10 years, but he happens to be the same age as Van Nistelrooy - exactly. Both men are 28. They were born on the same day: 1 July 1976.

Kluivert may have to fight his way back into favour with his country, but he has scored twice as many goals for Holland: 40, to Van Nistelrooy's 20.

Unlike his Dutch rival, he didn't hit the mark in Europe last week. Then again, Van Nistelrooy has yet to score the winner in a European Cup final. It is 10 seasons now since Kluivert accomplished that premature crowning glory as a teenager with Ajax.