Hanover - "Diouf, Diouf, Diouf..." was the chant that echoed around the AWD Arena on Thursday night. Yet in spite of Hannover 96's heroic efforts in coming from behind to go 2-1 up against Levante UD in the UEFA Europa League, the fans were singing the praises of a substitute who had barely begun to warm up on the sidelines: Mame Biram Diouf.
The Senegalese international, who only joined the Reds from Manchester United in January, quickly found his feet in the Bundesliga with six goals and a further three assists in 15 appearances during the second half of the 2011/12 campaign.
On top of that, his four goals in the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League not only thrusted the 96ers into the quarter-finals, but also propelled the striker into the hearts of the fans. Ankle ligament surgery stalled his progress for five months subsequently, but now the likeable frontman is feeling his way back to fitness.
Head coach Mirko Slomka is a firm believer in giving a player as much recovery time as needed when it comes to injuries and, as a result, is gradually easing the 24-year-old back into first-team duties. A nine-minute cameo against 1. FC Nuremberg was followed by second half appearances against both Hamburger SV and Levante, even though Hannover were a man down and 2-1 in front in the latter.
"I wanted to bring on an aerially dominant player for up front, but also to help defend. Furthermore, Mame has the ability to lift the rest of his teammates with his combative and intensive, athletic performances," Slomka told bundesliga.com after opting not to bring on a defensive-minded player having taken the lead on Thursday.
With Diouf back in the frame, the 45-year-old is close to having five fully-fit strikers at his disposal. Competing alongside the ever-present Jan Schlaudraff for position up front are last year's top goalscorer Mohammed Abdellaoue and Didier Ya Konan, as well as Polish youngster Artur Sobiech.
At the beginning of the year, with Ya Konan suffering from a dip in form after the Africa Cup of Nations and Sobiech yet to arrive at the club, Diouf was able to walk virtually unchallenged into the starting line-up. Now Sobiech is firing on all cylinders and Ya Konan is rediscovering his shooting boots, but Diouf is ready to take on the challenge.
"I obviously have to work harder than my teammates, who have already completed all the necessary pre-season preparations," said the former Molde FK striker. "I have to show 100 per cent determination and work at full throttle in every training session. [My ankle] is improving day by day."
The upcoming international break should offer the 24-year-old a chance to make up for lost time and there's no doubt he's raring to get back into action, especially at the AWD-Arena. "When we play at home we've got our fans who support us, and that's a definite advantage," added Diouf. "When we go out on the pitch every player has to give 100 per cent, if not 150 per cent. That's what these incredible fans deserve."