Mainz striker Jean-Philippe Mateta has emerged as one of the Bundesliga's rising stars this season, with his 13 league goals ensuring the 05ers will be back for an 11th consecutive top-flight campaign in 2019/2020, as well as setting a new record for most debut season strikes by a Frenchman in the Bundesliga.
Fittingly, the Frenchman played a central role in getting Mainz over the line last month, securing their survival with a brace in the 3-1 home win over Fortuna Düsseldorf. Two weeks earlier, he netted his second career hat-trick as the 05ers thrashed Freiburg 5-0, equalling their biggest-ever victory in the Bundesliga.
"A hat-trick is good, but a five-goal haul is even better," Mateta commented in L'Équipe, hinting at the ambition and hunger that has catapulted him into the limelight. "Look at Luka Jovic, he got one earlier this season. The level here in the Bundesliga is higher than in France, the pressing is constant. But I've adapted."
Watch: Mateta got his first Bundesliga hat-trick in style against Freiburg
And how. Mateta arrived in Rhineland-Palatinate after an impressive spell in the French second tier with Le Havre, where he spent the 2017/18 season on loan from Lyon. The powerful 6'3" frontman notched 17 goals to qualify his club for the promotion play-offs, and netted twice more in the semi-finals against AC Ajaccio, who ended up winning on penalties.
The Châteauroux youth product soon set about putting that disappointment behind him after being snapped up by Mainz for a club-record fee. He needed just two games to open his Bundesliga account, putting the 05ers ahead in a 1-1 draw with Nuremberg. Though he then went seven games without scoring, coach Sandro Schwarz never lost faith in his new No.9, and it was repaid as Mateta netted in wins over Werder Bremen, Freiburg and Düsseldorf, earning himself a Rookie of the Month nomination for November.
A mobile, pacy frontman with a wicked left foot, the France U21 international has become a genuine talisman for Mainz, who managed to comfortably avoid this season's relegation scrap after flirting with the drop in the two previous campaigns. The 05ers are unbeaten in the nine games in which Mateta has scored (seven wins, two draws), and the 23 points picked up in those outings accounts for almost two thirds of their league tally (36).
"'JP' always wants to work," insisted Oswald Tanchot, his former coach at Le Havre. "Every morning, he would ask what he could do in addition to the day's training session. He spent his days at the club. My staff and I usually finished much later than the players – but he often left at the same time as us."
Little wonder that Mateta has become a fan favourite at the Opel Arena. Hip-hop artists Geeno and Nasjo have even penned a song in his honour, with the following chorus: "I wear No. 9 like Mateta / I want to be happy like Mateta / I only think about goals like Mateta / I'm going to be big like Mateta." Their admiration is not lost on the man himself.
"I cherish the connection with the fans so much," the Frenchman explained earlier this season. "Their enthusiasm, their excitement and their desire to win, it's all amazing. I love these fans more than almost anything else. That's why you play football. That's what makes it worth it."
Mateta carved himself out a slice of history as Mainz held RB Leipzig on Matchday 32. Stepping off the bench to haul the 05ers level in a six-goal thriller, he became the first Frenchman to net 13 goals in his maiden Bundesliga season, outdoing compatriots Didier Six and Anthony Modeste (12 each with VfB Stuttgart in 1981/82 and Cologne in 2013/14), not to mention the likes of Jean-Pierre Papin and Franck Ribery. Borussia Mönchengladbach striker Alassane Plea is also on the verge of breaking the record with a dozen strikes of his own, but the Foals are not in action until Saturday afternoon.
Leipzig should have known what was coming at the Opel Arena, given that Mateta opened the scoring against Düsseldorf a fortnight earlier after just 36 seconds. The Mainz magician needed 37 second-half minutes to get the better of his France U21 teammate Ibrahima Konate against Leipzig, although the two men could well be lining up on the same side of the pitch when Les Bleuets take part in the UEFA U21 Championship in Italy in June, their first appearance in the competition since way back in 2006.
"For a player with such impressive athletic potential, Jean-Philippe has a rare ability to get in behind opposition defences and beat players one-on-one," summarised France U21 coach Sylvain Ripoll, who called Mateta up for the first time in October 2018. "And there's still a lot of room for improvement."
A happy thought indeed for Schwarz and Mainz, who are hoping to round out the season on a high note despite tricky fixtures against Eintracht Frankfurt and Hoffenheim. Hakuna Mateta, after all – it means no worries when goal machine Jean-Philippe is doing his thing.