Japan are renowned for producing high-quality midfielders. Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura and Shinji Ono, to name just a few, have formed the backbone of the golden generation. Currently the man shouldering the role in the current squad is Keisuke Honda.
As if to match their impressive creativeness, goal-scorers have not been rare on their star production-line over the recent years, with Mainz 05 marksman Shinji Okazaki the most notable. Catching recent attention is, of course, striking sensation Masato Kudo who has exploded onto the Asian scene following his excellent displays in this year's AFC Champions League.
In a sense, it seems that the 23-year-old Kashiwa Reysol man has come from nowhere as he took the continental competition by storm, scoring five times to help steer his club to the quarter-finals. His impressive tally sees him among the top three of the tournament's goal-scoring chart - the first such achievement for a Japanese striker since Gamba Osaka’s Masato Yamazaki in 2008.
His predatory talents didn't go unnoticed by national team Alberto Zaccheroni, who included him in his new-look squad for this week’s EAFF East Asian Championship featuring entirely home-based players, as he seeks to unearth fresh diamonds. The dynamic forward, who has so far garnered ten goals for Kashiwa in this season's J.League, scored one and set up another as Japan drew 3-3 against China PR in Sunday's 2013 tournament opener.
Despite missing their European-based stars, Kudo and his J.League-based team-mates earned praise from Zaccheroni, who admitted their performances provided him with a surprise. "Our players did well for 60 minutes in the middle of the game, individually and as a team,” said the former Inter Milan and Juventus coach. “Considering the fact that we’ve only been together for the last three days, they did better than I had expected.”
Star in the making
Born in Tokyo in May 1990, Kudo joined Kashiwa as a teenager in 2009 taking just a year to become established among the starting line-up. Ten goals from 27 appearances was his impressive goal return in 2010 as Kashiwa won the second division to earn their return to the top flight. The next season saw him amass another seven goals with Kashiwa defying all odds to clinch their maiden J.League title.
Kudo has claimed his share of headlines as Kashiwa featured in continental competition. He broke his Asian duck with a brace in their sensational 6-2 rout of Suwon Bluewings, before opening the scoring as Kashiwa rounded off their group campaign with a 3-0 victory at Central Coast Mariners.
His fourth came in the Round of 16 first leg against Jeonbuk Motors when he struck inside three minutes to set his side on the path to a 2-0 away win. Kudo then continued his outstanding form in the return, netting the match-winner in a 3-2 home triumph which sealed Kashiwa's progression to partly compensate for last year's near-miss at the same stage.
"Last year was a good experience even though we couldn’t get past the last 16," said Kudo, whose side will encounter Saudi champions Al Shabab in the quarter-finals. "This year we are the only team left representing Japan (in the knockout stage), so we want to rise to the challenge.”
Striving for perfection
Standing at 177 cm tall, Kudo belongs to the shrewd type of goal-getters who uses his head as well as his feet. Boasting broad vision and a sharp nose for goal, he always threatens with his sudden surges into the opposition’s third. And his finishing is second to none, having emerged as Kashiwa's top-striker with 13 goals last season.
Kudo, though, has maintained steady improvement on both the home and Asian front as he aims to become a more complete player. His efforts have paid off this season, with the goals coming from various methods. While he is known for lashing the ball accurately home with either foot, headers are by no means uncommon, as well as long-range efforts.
"Before, a lot of my goals had just been about getting the final touch, but this year I have been able to score more from dribbling. This season there have been a lot more occasions where I just head straight for goal. This has given me a lot of confidence," he added.
It remains to be seen whether the in-form forward can earn Zaccheroni's imprimatur and secure a place in Japan’s 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ squad. However, it is a aim Kudo has harboured since his childhood. "My dream has always been to represent Japan at a World Cup.”