Shinji Okazaki seems to have been walking on air over the last few months. Nimble, agile and a source of perpetual motion across the frontline whomever he represents, the Japan and Leicester City forward has been turning heads as the 2015/16 season approaches its conclusion.
He was at his balletic best when he opened the scoring for Japan against Afghanistan as the Samurai Blue secured a place in the next round of Asian qualify for 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, a highlight of a campaign that has potential for plenty. The first of his season’s targets was wrapped up in what ended as a comfortable 5-0 victory for Vahid Halilhodzic’s side, but up until the former Mainz forward struck, the visitors had proved a tough nut to crack.
Turns out, all that was need was a little finesse. That is an attribute Okazaki has in spades, which he duly displayed to all watching in Saitama on his 99th Japanese appearance. With his back to goal on the edge of the area, he teased Makoto Hasebe’s pass into his path with a neat 180 degree turn, before bursting past his marker with a Messi-esque change of direction and cool left-footed finish. Seen on a loop, the goal takes on a mesmeric quality.
“We had some difficult moments in the first half, so my goal came at an important time,” he modestly explained following the final whistle.
The game also saw Halilhodzic implement a front two. pairing Okazaki with Mu Kanazaki – a system the Leicester striker has shone this season. The system had been untested before the game and the Bosnian coach was delighted with the results. “That was a truly beautiful win,” he reflected after the game.
“At the beginning we were passing the ball a bit too quickly, and some of the players were trying to do too much. But overall our team played phenomenally well, with a new system which I had never tried before with them.”
From club to country
Allowing Okazaki to seamlessly bring his fine form from club to country certainly was a shrewd move. The now Japanese veteran – who stands as one of just two men to score at two different FIFA World Cups for the Samurai Blue – has been quietly making the difference behind Leicester's star performers, Riyadh Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante. His startling overhead-kick winner against Newcastle United was a brief step into the spotlight amid his more unsung contributions.
Having developed his talents at Shimizu S-Pulse, then making a name for himself as a predator over five years in Germany at Stuttgart and Mainz, he now finds himself sat at the top of the English Premier League – something he readily admits is a new experience.
“In the past, I’ve never been part of a championship run like this, so for me this is a great experience,” he said, with the Foxes currently five points clear. “I have team-mates who have produced great results and are very hard-working and supportive, which is a good combination. And it’s great to be part of such a team that is at the top of the league.”
His five goals this term have helped them to claim a crucial 13 points and, as he explained, their progress has been followed keenly in Japan. “People are paying attention and took notice when I signed with Leicester,” Okazaki said. “I think it’s become a big thing back home.”
Set to mark his international century against Syria on Tuesday, he’ll no doubt be keen to add to his tally of 48 goals for his country and return to England’s midlands with the wind firmly in his sails.