Munich - The 50th season of the Bundesliga gets back under way following the winter break with the Matchday 18 meeting of Schalke 04 and Hannover 96 on Friday evening.
While Schalke are looking to make a fresh start under caretaker coach Jens Keller, visitors Hannover aim to build on the foundations of a first season-half that was solid rather than spectacular. That said, the 96ers did progress to the first knockout round of the UEFA Europa League as unbeaten group winners in addition to garnering the same number of points (23) as at the midway stage last year - albeit finding themselves four places lower in the standings (eleventh) this time around.
Ahead of the season re-opener in Gelsenkirchen, bundesliga.com spoke with frontman Mame Diouf about the current state of play in the 96ers' camp. The 25-year-old Senegal international said the winter preparations had gone well: "It was really tough coming back from injury, but the pre-season has helped me a lot to get back in shape and try to do my best for the team."
The former Manchester United prospect, who arrived in Lower Saxony a year ago on the back of a loan spell at Blackburn Rovers, made clear that Hannover's aspirations these days extend to more than treading water mid-table: "Hopefully we'll get back to our level, because it’s good for us, good for the fans and the team. We’ll just try to qualify for the UEFA Europa League again or the Champions League if we can."
High ambition indeed for a club whose fortunes have enjoyed a dramatic turn for the better over the past couple of seasons with Mirko Slomka at the helm. One tournament at a time though and, if the Reds can come through a "tough game in Russia" and dispatch FC Anji Makhachkala over two legs, there is the prospect of perhaps facing Newcastle United, former SC Freiburg goalgetter and Diouf's fellow Senegalese Papiss Cissé included. "Yeah," he laughed, "why not? It’s always a dream to progress in the Europa League, so we’ll try to do our best, keep playing our game and hopefully we can qualify."
As to his personal aims on the Bundesliga front, the Dakar native is naturally keen to add to his season tally of six goals, although he did stress: "I’m a striker and I don’t need to set any particular targets. When I’m on the pitch I always want to score as many as I can. I’ll try to do that and see what happens at the end of the season."
If he can replicate the sort of form he showed this time last year, fresh on board from the English Premier League, the AWD Arena faithful will certainly not be complaining. Asked how he managed to make such an explosive impact on the German top flight, he explained: "It’s no secret, it’s just hard work. As a football player, you always have to be looking forward. So whenever you have the opportunity to show it you just have to keep doing your best and that’s what we’re doing."
The first opportunity of 2013 comes on Friday and while opponents Schalke have not won in the league since mid-November, Diouf is under no illusions that "it’s going to be tough. We’re playing away and our away record is not good this year. So hopefully we’ll start 2013 in the right way and get a good result to help the team get back on track".
In order to do just that, the 13-time Senegal international explained a straightforward approach would be Hannover's best bet: "It’s not tactical, it’s just a game of football. So we’ll do what the coach asks. If all the players do their job – the midfield, the defence, the keeper, even the strikers – I think we’ll do great there."
Interview: Christopher Mayer-Lodge/Words: Angus Davison