Cologne - Fast approaching his 17th season as a professional, there's not much Hamburger SV captain doesn't know about the beautiful game.

His leadership qualities and adroitness around the 18-yard-box have served him consistently well over the years, but it's the Dutchman's malleability that looks set to be his closest ally down the back straight of a splendid career.

'More of an influence'


"Nowadays I'm more of a conductor," the 109-time Oranje international explained. "I have more touches of the ball and can have more of an influence on the game. I'm happy with that. I can still score goals like I did away to Augsburg [on Matchday 13]. I've scored three so far and it's still what I do best."

Van der Vaart's positional change from advanced to defensive midfield has been one of the key strands in head coach Josef Zinnbauer's systematic remoulding of the Bundesliga's only ever-present club; the results of which have been mixed. On the one hand, HSV have shipped fewer Hinrunde goals compared to last season (19:38). On the other, they haven't registered anywhere near as many (9:33).

'Nowhere near good enough'


"We've only scored nine goals, normally that's nowhere near good enough," acknowledged the 31-year-old. "Goalscoring has always had something to do with confidence. Against Schalke [on Matchday 17], the lads had two golden opportunities. If one of those goes in, the self-belief comes back of its own accord."

The port city club's foibles in front of goal mean they will start the Rückrunde level on points with relegation play-off place incumbents SV Werder Bremen and only two clear of the bottom two. Despite being marginally better off than at the same juncture last year, van der Vaart is once against bracing himself for yet another relegation dogfight.

'I've learned from those mistakes'


"We're focusing on the games against Köln and Paderborn," admitted the self-styled Dinos' pragmatic skipper. "These are two games we have to win. Last season we were always chasing our goals and then having to justify ourselves. I've learned from those mistakes. It'd be nice if we can win back-to-back games. That'd ease the pressure on us."

Like a select few of his tricenarian peers, van der Vaart has become an expert in juggling the rough with the smooth. Rather than fall victim to the twilight years, ageing legs and the self-fulfilling prophecy of the oft-cited decline, he has honed his craft with a view to a prolonged stay at the top. Hamburg fans can only hope he has the same effect on the HSV collective.

Christopher Mayer-Lodge