Though statistics can rarely be relied upon to tell the whole story, there is little doubt that last season ultimately boiled down to a tale of numbers for Klaas Jan Huntelaar.

Thirty-three, for example, was the remarkable haul of goals he accrued in just 31 league matches. Then there was nine million, the price in Euros paid out to Heerenveen by  Ajax  halfway through the season to make him the subject of Dutch's football's biggest-ever domestic transfer. 

Twenty-three, meanwhile, was the age at which 'The Hunter' became just the second Dutchman since Marco van Basten, two decades earlier, to win the European Golden Boot. Yet, ironically, it was Van Basten himself who ensured that this same number was to remain significant for another, less welcome reason by selecting 23 players ahead of Huntelaar for the Netherlands' final FIFA World Cup™ squad.

The likes of Roy Makaay, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids made for high-profile company on the sidelines, but the youngster's omission still provoked an uproar, with Dutch fans left to wonder what more Europe's most prolific striker could have done to book a seat on the plane. Put on to the defensive, Van Basten claimed that his preference for Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink was not a snub to Huntelaar, but rather in the Ajax hitman's best interests, given the experience he would gain from playing a starring role at the UEFA European U-21 Championship. 

The challenge, he added, was for the then 22-year-old to "show that we did not do the right thing" in sending him to Portugal rather than Germany. One trophy and a top goalscorer award later, Huntelaar could consider that point to have been well and truly proved. "It was a disappointment, not going to the World Cup," he reflected later. "I was desperate to go, but when that isn't possible, you have to move on. Winning the U-21 final, that was the most beautiful memory for me. There is nothing like that winning feeling." 

The heir to Van Nistelrooij
It was a sensation the Dutch senior squad were unable to experience in his absence, and though Oranje fans have debated long and hard how different Germany 2006 might have been had Huntelaar been present, they are at least gratified to see that Van Basten appears to be learning from that particular 'mistake'.

The youngster did, after all, start the Netherlands' first match of season 2006/07 - a friendly in Dublin on 16 August - and duly scored twice and laid on another two as the Republic of Ireland suffered  their biggest home defeat in 40 years . Unsurprisingly, Huntelaar kept his place for the following month's opening UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier, a narrow 1-0 win in Luxembourg, and though sidelined by injury for Van Basten's team's two most recent matches, few doubt that he will return to play a key role in the  continued absence of Ruud van Nistelrooij .

Yet if 'The Hunter' is becoming increasingly important to his country, he is already all but indispensable to his club. Certainly, with PSV Eindhoven already 11 points clear and seemingly  en route to a third successive Eredivisie title , Ajax will require minor heroics from their talismanic No9 if they are yet to have the leaders looking nervously over their shoulder.
The irony is that PSV's most feared and respected foe - the player who denied the champions a domestic double with two goals in last season's KNVB Cup final - is, in fact, a product of their own youth system. Huntelaar even made his top flight debut in the red-and-white stripes as an 18-year-old, but after being loaned out to De Graafschap and then AGOVV Apeldoorn, he saw his path to the first team blocked by Mateja Kezman and a recurring rival in Vennegoor of Hesselink.

PSV were eager for him to stay, but he rejected their contract offer in favour of a move to Heerenveen, whose 100,000 Euro outlay was rewarded with 32 goals in 48 matches over the next two seasons. 

Next stop Old Trafford?
Soon, some of Europe's top clubs were queuing up to court this skilful and athletic youngster, but it was Ajax who were quickest to meet Heerenveen's valuation, this despite the fact that a sizeable chunk of the record fee found its way directly into PSV's coffers.

Not that anyone cared about that when the union between Huntelaar and Ajax immediately proved to be a marriage made in heaven. "I always want to play in an attacking side, close to goal and preferably with wing attackers," said the striker himself, keen to stress his compatibility with the Amsterdam club's fabled football philosophy. "Since my youth I have played best as a central striker between two wingers, with a lot of movement around me and No10 close behind, so we can switch a lot and choose positions on the near and far posts when crosses come in."

His goal-a-game ratio may have dwindled somewhat during the early days of Henk ten Cate's reign, but Huntelaar remains Ajax's most dependable matchwinner, not to mention their most valuable and widely-coveted asset. His ever-expanding list of suitors, which is said to include Arsenal, Lyon, both Milan clubs and Manchester United, resembles a veritable who's who of European football, although Ajax have thus far afforded a frosty reception to all interested parties.

The player himself is leaving the door to a move abroad firmly open, however, having spoken of his "love" for Manchester United in particular, describing the English league leaders as "a club that makes me dream". Ajax will, of course, remind their star striker that he is contracted to dream with them for another three-and-a-half years, but with every time Huntelaar causes the net to bulge, the more certain it is that 'The Hunter' will himself be hunted ever more ruthlessly.