Borussia Dortmund are setting a pace no other German Bundesliga team can match at present. After nearly a decade in no-man’s land, the 1996/97 UEFA Champions League winners have hit a rich vein of form reminiscent of former glory days, and have galloped clear of the rest at the top of the standings.
Jurgen Klopp’s team began in less than promising fashion with a 2-0 defeat at home to Bayer Leverkusen, but have since gone 13 games undefeated. Of those matches, no fewer than 12 have ended in victory, with just one draw, and Borussia have also achieved the remarkable feat of winning all seven of their away matches to date. Unsurprisingly, BVB are top of the pile, seven points clear of Mainz. They also have the best attack with 35 goals for, and the meanest defence with just nine conceded.
The outstanding individuals for the men in yellow and black are goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, midfield schemer Nuri Sahin, striker Lucas Barrios, and a hitherto unknown Japanese import, Shinji Kagawa. The 21-year-old switched to the Ruhr valley last summer from J.League outfit Cerezo Osaka, and has exploded on to the European footballing scene since then. Dortmund paid a token €350,000 for the Japan international, but the player’s market value has soared into the millions in a matter of months.
German players are generally tall and robust, but pace and agility can be very useful weapons against them.
Kagawa has netted seven times in 14 league matches to date, and also has one assist to his name. However, Borussia’s Japanese jewel was modest when he spoke to FIFA.com. "We’ve had some great results at Borussia Dortmund recently, but I’m not 100 per cent satisfied with my own performance. There’s room for improvement," he insisted.
The Kobe-born attacking midfielder has adapted to his new life in Europe remarkably quickly, as he himself related: "I’ve settled very well, and it’s been much quicker than I thought it would. I’m very happy in Dortmund."
Nevertheless, the man who wears the No23 shirt for Borussia had to work hard to reach the standards required of him, not least because of the step up in quality from his home league. "There’s a significant difference," he said. "The really crucial thing here at BVB is that everyone works together so hard as a team. I’m a part of that, and I’m delighted I’ve been able to contribute to our good results."
Kagawa, slightly built at 1.72m and just 63kg, is learning fast about the strapping physical presence of many of his German top-flight opponents, although he too has adapted with remarkable speed. "German players are generally tall and robust, but pace and agility can be very useful weapons against them," he explained.
He reached into his considerable armoury again last weekend, thrilling BVB's 80,000 home crowd with his seventh goal of the season, and setting his side on their way to an ultimately comfortable victory over bottom club Borussia Monchengladbach. For all the hymns of praise, Kagawa has his feet firmly on to the ground, and always prefers to talk about the team rather than individuals. "All our players work really hard in every game," he said. "Our team is young and hungry, and we’re more and more motivated with every game we win."
The Japanese selectors were impressed by Kagawa’s consistent form in his homeland, where he scored 57 goals in 127 appearances for Gamba, and they have been even more enchanted by his current blossoming in Germany. "It's a huge honour to represent my country," said the man who made his international debut in 2008. "I hope I can deliver the goods, and contribute to continuing progress and improvement in Japanese football."
Former Japan coach Takeshi Okada omitted Kagawa from his squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, but under Alberto Zaccheroni the 21-year-old has assumed a central role for the Samurai Blue. "I feel very good when I play for the team, and I know I’m expected to get forward and look for opportunities in front of goal," he said. Kagawa struck his third goal for his country a few weeks ago, in a 1-0 win over Paraguay.
You have to be very cautious and never underestimate even one of your opponents. But we have a clearly-defined target: we want to win the Asian Cup.
The AFC Asian Cup takes place in Qatar this January, and Kagawa and his team-mates have set their sights high, as he readily revealed in our exclusive interview. "The Asian Cup is one of the biggest tournaments, and I’m really looking forward to it. We’re going there hoping to win it," he declared, making no secret of Japan’s desire to add a fourth continental crown to their collection.
However, before Kagawa and Co come anywhere close to lifting the trophy into the Doha skies, Japan must deal with first-phase opponents Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The Borussia midfielder knows it will be no easy task: "The group-stage matches are very important. You have to be very cautious and never underestimate even one of your opponents. But we have a clearly-defined target: we want to win the Asian Cup."
If Kagawa can maintain his scintillating club form and inspire his Japan team-mates and supporters in the same way he has electrified the masses at BVB, he and his national team must stand a very good chance of going all the way at the continental showdown.