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Feb 29, 2012

Marvellous Mo is back

Despite a stellar performance from Franck Ribery, and a brace from Poland's Footballer of the Year, Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski, you have to say that the Bundesliga's star player at the moment is a 30-year-old Egyptian striker who didn't start a single league game between May 2010 and February 2012.

On the last day of the January transfer window, Mohamed Zidan left Borussia Dortmund to rejoin the club where he made his name in Germany, Mainz 05. Only four days later, he was in the starting XI for the tricky away game at Schalke - and earned his team a point with a goal after 15 minutes.

A week later, Zidan was on target after only seven minutes of the game against Hannover 96. Six days on, he scored a goal at Hoffenheim that gave Mainz another away point. And last weekend, it took the Egyptian barely two minutes to open the scoring against Kaiserslautern.

Zidan is the first player in league history who changed clubs in the winter and then scored in each of his first four games for his new team. The summer record, so to speak, stands at five, set by Fredi Bobic in his first weeks at Stuttgart in 1994.

That in itself is an astonishing feat, of course, but the rest of the story is even harder to believe.

Zidan has played for four clubs in Germany. He failed to impress at Bremen and was loaned out to Mainz, where he did well under coach Jurgen Klopp and thrilled the fans. He returned to Bremen, still couldn't get into the first XI and was sold to Mainz during the winter break. His second spell there was even better than the first, as Zidan scored 13 goals in 15 games.

At the end of that season, 2006-2007, he joined Hamburg, where he never established himself and was soon demoted to the subs' bench. One year later, his old coach Klopp, now at Dortmund, sent a proven goalscorer, the Croat Mladen Petric, to Hamburg and got money in return - plus Zidan. Under Klopp, the Egyptian immediately looked like his old self again and was a regular until tearing his cruciate ligament. He was sidelined for almost eight months, after which new signings like Shinji Kagawa and Lewandowski blocked his way back into the team.

There were some concerns at Mainz about bringing Zidan back for a second time. After all, there are seldom sequels to fairytales.

Also, maybe it wasn't Mainz that brought out the best in him, maybe it was Klopp? "I wasn't sure if he could get along with our coach Thomas Tuchel," Mainz president Harald Strutz revealed. "So I sat them down in a hotel room and locked the door.

"When I came back an hour later, they were sitting next to each other on a sofa and Tuchel was slapping his thigh, he was laughing so hard. That's when I thought, okay, this could be working."

It's certainly worked a treat so far, as a new "Mo Madness", the third such wave, has gripped Mainz. And now guess who Mainz and their Mighty Mo will meet next weekend? Zidan's former club and league leaders Dortmund, coached by the striker's great mentor, Klopp.

As yet it's unclear whether or not Zidan will be able to play. He picked up a thigh injury against Kaiserslautern that forced him to come off. But if he should take to the field on Saturday, he'll have a few devoted fans in Munich who will keep their fingers crossed for him to equal Bobic's record.

That's because Bayern climbed back into second place last Sunday. The Reds, as they are known in the city (1860 are the Blues), defeated Schalke 2-0 thanks to winger Ribery, who couldn't be contained and was seemingly everyhwere at once and scored both goals to boot.

This was the more astounding since Ribery had caused a minor uproar only four days earlier. When he was taken off during Bayern's Champions League game away at Basel, the Frenchman walked past coach Jupp Heynckes without offering him the now customary handshake.

Bayern then lost to a late strike and according to witnesses, the players loudly scolded their team-mates who were respsonsible for this goal (primarily Thomas Muller and Rafinha).

All this seemed to signal there was trouble brewing in the Bayern camp, but then they put in a strong team effort against Schalke.

Even Arjen Robben, recently accused of selfishness, made a point of linking up with his team-mates. Though it has to be said that the visitors - despite the presence of experienced stars such as Raul, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Jefferson Farfan - seemed strangely inhibited. Goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand made an error of judgement that led to the first goal, but otherwise he was exceptional and kept Bayern's goal tally down.

The result - and the game as such - should also mean that Schalke have dropped out of the title race. Not so much because they are now eight points behind Dortmund, who were 3-1 winners over Hannover 96 in a game that was one-sided for an hour and then became thrilling as the vistors clawed their way back into the match.

Rather, Schalke have now been thoroughly outplayed by two of their fellow "Fantastic Four" in the past two weeks (they were also beaten 3-0 at Gladbach). Coach Huub Stevens took this realisation in his stride, though. "I have always said that we are not playing a part in the race, anyway," he commented.

Another veteran coach had an even worse weekend. Otto Rehhagel, whose sensational return to the Bundesliga was highlighted a week ago, suffered a heavy 3-0 defeat with Hertha away at Augsburg.

The result made headlines because it ruined Rehhagel's comeback and sent Hertha into the relegation zone for the first time this season. However, it should also have made headlines because Augsburg, the surest relegation fodder in recent memory, have climbed out of the drop zone for the first time since late August.

What's more, the side has proved it is competitive. Over the last ten games, Augsburg's record is perfectly respectable, it reads: won three, lost three, drawn four.

"It feels good to be in 15th place now, after we'd already been partly written off," says defender Sebastian Langkamp. However, he remains realistic. "We have difficult games coming up, first Hannover, then Dortmund. Then Mainz." With marvellous Mo.

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