The growing legion of Wolfsburg fans were astounded. A mini-whirlwind was racing up and down the right wing, showing the deftest of touches and acting as the catalyst for any number of chances. The new kid on the block had worked hard enough in pre-season training to earn himself a starting berth in the German champions' first XI, and on this particular Friday night two weeks ago in the opening Bundesliga match of the season against Stuttgart, he showed that he had further improved an already excellent team.
The man in question is 27-year-old Algerian Karim Ziani. And though a mere 1.69m and 69kg, with the ball at his feet, he is a veritable giant. Indeed, the manner in which he has slotted in alongside brilliant Bosnian playmaker Zvejzdan Misimovic has enabled the defending champions to extend their incredible run into the new season.
With a 2-0 win at home to Stuttgart followed by a 3-1 success in Cologne, Wolfsburg have now won 16 of their last 18 Bundesliga matches, putting then top of the league, level on points with Schalke 04. And their new number 15 is the kind of player who can take Armin Veh's team to the next level. "He fits into our system well and will no doubt help us to achieve our goals this season," said the new coach, who has made an excellent start since taking over the reins from the legendary Felix Magath.
Ziani may be a newcomer in Germany but he has already carved out a name for himself in France, despite choosing to play for his homeland of Algeria, for whom he has won over 40 caps already. The mercurial midfielder spent the last three seasons at Marseille after previously chipping in with goals and assists for Sochaux and Lorient. In Algeria, Ziani was voted footballer of the year three times in a row, from 2004 and 2006, and is one of the country's biggest stars.
The diminutive winger has the hopes of a nation resting on his slender shoulders, with Algeria's fervent fans desperate to qualify for their first FIFA World Cup™ since 1986. "There is an enormous groundswell of enthusiasm throughout the country at the moment," Ziani told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview a few months ago. "We're all playing for top clubs now and it's only logical that our national team should take the next step. We need to pick up points away from home though if we are going to get to the next level and qualify for the World Cup."
The table currently makes good reading for Algeria. Three matches into the campaign, Ziani and his team-mates already have seven points and sit atop African Group C, looking firm favourites to make it through to the third and final qualifying round thanks to the three-point cushion they have over African champions Egypt. Zambia are also three adrift and will be Algeria's next opponents in Blida on 6 September, when a win in front of their home fans would see Algeria make further progress towards the next stage.
Ziani's worry of not picking enough points away from home seems to have been allayed by the results in Rwanda (0-0) and Zambia (2-0), though Algeria still have their toughest test to come, in Egypt in mid-November for the final match. "Egypt are the real favourites in this group, not us," says Ziani. "They have a really strong squad but I think that we can match them."
Algeria's lynchpin exudes quiet confidence, as well he might. After all, he has recently joined the same team which won the Bundesliga and established himself in the starting XI. Whoever said 'Never change a winning team' had obviously never heard of Ziani. With a great future to look forward to with both club and country, we can expect to hear a lot more about him in the years to come.