It’s taken him less than a full season, but already Shinji Okazaki has matched the goal tally in England of Japan teammate Shinji Kagawa, whose unhappy Manchester United stint spanned 26 months.
Okazaki’s eye-catching, overhead strike that gave Leicester City a 1-0 victory over Newcastle United on Monday night, and a five point lead at the top of the Premier League, was his sixth goal in 31 matches in all competitions.
Playing for three different managers, Kagawa managed only six goals in 57 games before Louis Van Gaal deemed him surplus to requirements and sent the midfielder back to Borussia Dortmund within the first month of the 2014-15 season.
“I wanted to realise my Premier League dream but now I’m happy to be back in Dortmund in this great team,” Kagawa told the club’s official website on his return to Germany. “Dortmund is like family ... I can belong again.”
While Kagawa never really fitted in at Old Trafford as injuries and being played out of position took their toll, Okazaki has emerged as an integral part of the Claudio Ranieri revolution at King Power Stadium. While strike partner Jamie Vardy has overshadowed him with 19 league goals, Okazaki has chipped in with important contributions, none more so than his 25th minute masterpiece that settled a tense home game against Newcastle, who were looking to impress new manager Rafa Benitez.
Okazaki is now on course to match Kagawa in winning a Premier League title -- the latter did it under Sir Alex Ferguson in his debut 2012-13 season -- but with a team who were widely tipped for relegation at the start of the campaign.
His move after two successful seasons with Mainz -- and a total of five in the Bundesliga -- seemed like a calculated risk at best. After Kagawa’s hasty retreat to Borussia Dortmund, central defender Maya Yoshida remained the only Japanese in the Premier League, and he was with an apparently much stronger Southampton side, with aspirations of European football.
But Okazaki, just like Leicester, made a good start to the season and hasn’t looked back. His first goal came in only his second game as the Foxes won away to West Ham United on Aug. 15 and he scored the winner at Goodison Park in a 3-2 victory over Everton on Dec. 19 that put his team top of the table going into the Christmas-New Year period.
The fact that many of his best performances and most important goals have come away from home indicates his resilience. He has also been effective coming off the bench -- six times in 31 games in all competitions -- finding the net off the bench in crucial games versus Tottenham in the FA Cup in January and against Newcastle in the reverse league fixture at St. James’ Park last October.
With 47 goals in 96 appearances, Okazaki is Japan’s third most prolific scorer ever -- Kagawa has 23 in 73 -- and always seems to find a way past the keeper. It’s a quality much needed by a national team who have traditionally struggled to convert midfield dominance and possession into results against world class opposition.
He is part of a select group who scored in both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. He also gave the Samurai Blue a rare victory over South American opposition in a 1-0 triumph against Argentina in a 2010 friendly.
He’s bagged three goals in Japan’s 2018 AFC World Cup qualifying campaign so far and is likely to add to his tally with home games against Afghanistan and Syria to conclude their second round matches later this month.
And with Thailand-owned Leicester desperate for an Asian success story, Okazaki presents the dream solution. He’s likeable, hardworking, successful and a true team player who fits in perfectly to the United Nations of Leicester. The side that featured against Newcastle on Monday night had no fewer than nine different nationalities.
So why has Okazaki’s experience been more celebrated and enjoyable than Kagawa’s painful spell at Old Trafford?
The older Shinji -- he turns 30 next month while Kagawa turned 27 on March 17 -- has had the advantage of flying under the radar in England’s East Midlands while his predecessor was in the goldfish bowl of Manchester where his every move and even facial expressions were scrutinised.
And having the masterful Ranieri dampening expectations, including talking about the target of avoiding relegation when Leicester were sitting top of the table earlier in the season, has taken the pressure off everyone, including Okazaki.
No doubt the two Shinjis will have plenty to catch up on when they get together next week for national camp ahead of the two Group E qualifiers in Saitama.
True, Shinji Kagawa will always be the first Japan international to win a Premier League winners’ medal. But, if Leicester can hold on, Shinji Okazaki would have enjoyed his trophy-winning English experience a whole lot more.