Rookie of the Month nominee: Hannover's Ihlas Bebou
When they come up against Ihlas Bebou this season, Hannover's opponents will no doubt hear the youngster before they see him.
Whether it's the chants of "Bebouuuuuu" from the visiting fans – Bebou has quickly developed into a cult hero among the Hannover faithful – or whether it's the tell-tale pitter-patter of his feet as he rushes towards goal, opponents would be well advised to keep eyes and ears firmly focused on the 23-year-old – and even then he's not easy to stop.
Indeed, Bebou is the fastest player in the Bundesliga this season, and it is only necessary to look back to Matchday 10 to see how difficult he can be to stop. The Togo international quite literally ran rings around Borussia Dortmund, scoring twice in Hannover's dismantling of the then Bundesliga leaders, in the process announcing himself on the top-flight stage.
Watch: Bebou scores a brace as Hannover put four past Dortmund!
That brace against Borussia announced Bebou on the Bundesliga stage, and the final two fixtures of 2017 cemented his place there as one of the stars in the making. He used his lightning reactions to pounce on a loose ball to convert in the Reds' 3-1 defeat to Hertha Berlin before using his head in another productive way to nod in the first equaliser in an eight-goal thriller with Bayer Leverkusen.
The rookie has five goals to his name at the midway stage of his debut Bundesliga season – one more than seasoned strikers Vedad Ibisevic and Sandro Wagner and one fewer than the likes of Thorgan Hazard and Raffael – but Bebou is not one to brag. Indeed, "Modest" is one of the words most commonly used by coaches when describing the youngster, who moved to Düsseldorf from Togo with his parents as an eight-year-old.
After spells with local clubs, he joined Fortuna Düsseldorf's youth ranks as a teenager in 2011, his ability obvious for all to see. The main hindrance to Bebou's career – which in part explains why someone with such natural talent has taken until 23 to make a Bundesliga breakthrough – has been a succession of injuries.
One of his former coaches at Fortuna, Taskin Aksoy, said that Bebou would have been playing at the very highest level much earlier had it not been for a spate of serious setbacks. In typically modest fashion, Bebou said he didn't quite understand what his coach meant.
Just as he was called into the Düsseldorf first-team squad during pre-season in 2013, Bebou suffered a fractured skull during a friendly in Switzerland. "It was a very, very serious situation," said club doctor Ulf Blecker, who feared that Bebou – having lost consciousness – could have swallowed his tongue, with his right arm also totally paralysed.
Bebou's recovery was quicker than expected, though, and within two months he was making his second-tier debut as a second-half substitute in a 1-1 draw with Dynamo Dresden in September 2013.
Sadly, joy at his debut was short-lived; soon after the game, Bebou was diagnosed with cartilage damage in his knee. It wasn't until March 2015 that he returned to make his second appearance in the second division, again coming off the bench late on. Bebou used the remainder of that campaign to recover match fitness, scoring his first goal in a 3-2 defeat at eventual champions Ingolstadt a month later.
An up-and-down 2015/16 season followed – Bebou hardly helped by Düsseldorf's infamous off-field instability – but when given regular opportunities by Friedhelm Funkel last season, the forward grabbed his chance with both hands, scoring five goals and creating a further 11 to help his side avoid the drop.
So impressive were his displays that they aroused the interest of suitors both at home and abroad, Hannover near the front of the queue, but even while a protracted transfer saga was raging, Bebou kept his head down – in his endearingly unassuming manner – and worked hard, scoring two goals in Fortuna's opening four games of this season.
"Unlike lots of young players might do, he ran himself into the ground for Fortuna until the very last second," said Funkel upon Bebou's move to Hannover. "He didn't even worry about getting injured, and for that you have to hold him in the highest regard."
Perhaps that is because of Bebou's connection to Düsseldorf, the city that took him and his parents in from Togo.
"Off the field I'm a quiet person and I enjoy spending time with my friends," he said upon his arrival in Lower Saxony, before underlining his depth of feeling for his hometown: "That's going to be harder now I'm not in Düsseldorf."
Depth of feeling for Düsseldorf aside, it has taken Bebou little to no time at all to adapt to life on the field since his arrival in Hannover. In fact, with his pace and intelligent movement, the Sokodé native is tailor-made for Andre Breitenreiter's preferred counterattacking style – as he showed to devastating effect against Dortmund, and could well show again throughout this season.
Indeed, following that Dortmund display perhaps now Bebou is able to understand slightly better what Aksoy meant when his former coach said he could be playing at the very highest level. Not that he'd admit it if he did, of course.