Ze Roberto: A man for all seasons (and virtually all positions)

Mistakenly written off as past it, the Brazilian is still a key man in the Bundesliga, reports Terry Duffelen  

It is the 86th minute of the first game of the 2010/11 season at the Imtech Arena, home of HSV Hamburg. The home side are locked at 1-1 with last season's Bundesliga runners-up, Schalke.

With the ball at his feet, Hamburg's Ze Roberto charges from the left flank into the opposition penalty area. Head back, chest puffed out, in full flow, you can see the whites of his eye flicker as he looks up to spot the run of Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The Brazilian midfielder-slash-wingback's cross is inch-perfect and Van Nisterooy's run is perfectly timed. He cannot miss, Hamburg retake the lead and wrestle three points away from a dogged ten-man Schalke side.

Ze Roberto's assist (the first of seven so far this season) is typical of the man. He is the archetypal selfless runner who seems to derive as much pleasure creating a goal as scoring one. He plays like he knows that when a great goal is scored it is merely an end of a flowing movement – the final chord of a beautiful composition.

Wherever he plays on the pitch (and that could be pretty much anywhere) he is easily distinguishable by his explosive pace, intelligent running and reliable crosses. To watch him could be to mistake him for a player in his twenties. Only his face reveals a man who has charged headlong into northern European winters for over a decade.

Jose Roberto da Silva Jr began his Bundesliga career in 1998 at Bayer Leverkusen. He was part of the 2002 squad that progressed to the Champions League final (which he missed through suspension) against his old club Real Madrid under coach Klaus Toppmoller.

That same season, Leverkusen also came within a whisker of winning the Bundesliga but lost out by one point to Borussia Dortmund, hence the well-earned unofficial nickname Neverkusen.

However, the club Ze Roberto is best associated with is probably Bayern Munich, where he was a double winner thrice in his first spell and again upon his return in 2007, after a sabbatical back in Brazil with Santos.

At 35, in the summer of 2009 he was deemed surplus to requirements at Bayern Munich by incoming coach Louis van Gaal – a decision the Dutchman later regretted. Hamburg wasted no time in signing the former Brazil international and he took his place in coach Bruno Labaddia's team, either on the flank or through the middle.

For a while it looked like HSV were the real deal and would become genuine title challengers. They notched up impressive wins against Bayern and their bitter local rivals Werder Bremen.

However, as the pressure mounted, the wheels fell off. Hamburg missed out on a place in the Europa League final (held at their very own stadium) and failed to qualify for Europe competition via the league. Labaddia didn't even make it to the end of the campaign, sacked as he was in between the two legs of the Europa League semi-final against Fulham.

This season, former Stuttgart and Wolfsburg coach Armin Veh has been given the task of delivering the Bundesliga title to the ambitious but underachieving northern club. While results so far have been have been patchy, at least one man's form has been consistent.

Ze Roberto set up Paulo Guerrero's strike that condemned early pacesetters Mainz to their first defeat of the season, and his pinpoint centre to Mladen Petric last Saturday sealed an excellent win against Hoffenheim, their first three points since mid-October.

Inevitably, questions will arise at the end of the season as to whether the two-time Copa America winner will return to Brazil or stay in the Bundesliga for another campaign. Part of the joy of watching him is that he plays each game like it is his last.

At present, however, Hamburg will be grateful to have his energy, enthusiasm and skill ahead of their visit to Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund on Friday.