#FFTASIA50 stars to the fore – Asians at the centre of historic Premier League title race

Shinji Okazaki and Son Heung-min, the top two footballers in FFT's countdown of Asia's 50 best players of 2015, are leaving their own indelible mark in Europe through their exploits this term, writes John Duerden...

It may have been a busy international week but for the national teams of South Korea and Japan, there was not much to get excited about. Both had already reached the final stage of qualification for the 2018 World Cup with the minimum of fuss.

Of more interest this weekend is the continuing excitement of the English Premier League title race in which both Seoul and Tokyo have runners: Son Heung-min at Tottenham Hotspur and Shinji Okazaki at table-topping Leicester City. Asian players have won big prizes before but this is the first big European title race with more than one star from the east in the thick of it. 

The critics now have plenty of natto all over their faces. Okazaki has been an integral part of Leicester's incredible season.

Earlier this year, I was asked by a Tokyo radio station whether Okazaki helping Leicester win the championship would be the greatest achievement of a Japanese player overseas. It is a good question.

There have been notable achievements in the past. Hidetoshi Nakata helped AS Roma to the 2001 Serie A title. The Japan legend famously scored a spectacular goal to help his team come back from 2-0 down in a decisive clash against a Juventus side that had Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero pulling the strings – in the end, the game finished 2-2. From then, the title was heading to the Italian capital.

Shinji Kagawa won two titles in his first two years in Germany with Borussia Dortmund and then went to England and repeating the feat with Manchester United. Winning three titles in two major European countries in his first three seasons in Europe was another marvellous feat for a player who was just 21 when he went west.

Okazaki's exploits have elevated him to the same prominence as his predecessors

Exceeding expectations

The difference between Nakata and Kagawa's triumphs and the one that is on the cards for Okazaki is obvious. The former two were playing for clubs that expect to be challenging for the big prizes and spend big money in order to do so.

READ ALSO Okazaki: Moving to Europe meant my lifetime dream had finally come true

It's not like that at all at Leicester. The striker joined the club after two very good seasons in Germany with Mainz. There were plenty of concerns over whether swapping mid-table Mainz for a relegation battle in the East Midlands was the right move.

The critics, including this one, now have plenty of natto all over their faces. Okazaki has been an integral part of Leicester's incredible season. 

The 29-year-old may not quite have captured the kind of headlines that have come the way of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante but his selfless running, hard work, tactical intelligence and a few crucial goals – such as the recent overhead kick to win the game against Newcastle – have cemented his place in Leicester hearts. First with team-mates, then with fans and increasingly in the country at large.

But there is perhaps one country in the world that will be rooting for Tottenham to overtake Leicester and take a first title since 1961. That's all because of Son, the favourite footballer of South Korea.

There are few better sights for Asian football fans than Son on one of his runs.

READ ALSO One small step for Son, one giant leap for Asia

The Land of the Morning Calm grew accustomed to Premier League medals as Park Ji-sung picked up no less than four (as well as a host of other prizes) during his seven years at the club. It almost became passé.

Moving mountains

Son's situation is a little different than his Japanese counterpart at Leicester. To start with, he was a bigger name with plenty of solid Champions League performances and spells near the top of the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen under his belt. He is also a more explosive and exciting player, when at the top of his game, than Okazaki.

Son made headlines for his massive transfer to the Premier League.

There are few better sights for Asian football fans than Son on one of his runs.

His move to London in August 2015 was a big deal in more ways than one (Tottenham paid the highest fee recorded for an Asian player). It was a surprise in that nobody saw it coming, but joining one of the bigger teams in England did not seem an unnatural move and it was one greeted fairly positively by the Seoul media.

The biggest difference between Okazaki and Son is that the former has been integral to his club's title challenge in a way that the latter has not.

The only doubts came whether the attacker could not have aimed a little higher in his ambitions. Liverpool had long been linked to the star, with five Bundesliga seasons under his belt despite being just 23, and Anfield, not White Hart Lane, would have been the preferred choice of many.

Titanic tussle

Again, the critics were wrong, though not by quite as much. Tottenham obviously had a decent team but few expected a title challenge. If you had predicted last August that by the start of April Spurs would be five points behind Leicester, most fans of the North London club would be seriously worried about relegation.

The duo of Son and Okazaki are blazing a new path for Asian talent to make inroads into Europe.

READ ALSO Son Heung-min: Before I left Korea for Germany, I was told to first learn the swear words

The biggest difference between Okazaki at Leicester and Son at Spurs is that the former has been integral to his club's title challenge in a way that the latter has not. The Japanese has racked up 1640 Premier League minutes compared to 856 minutes for the Korean.

There have been some flashes of what he can do but Son has yet to really shine and when the team is doing so well, it can be difficult to break in. There is still time for Son to make a major impact for Tottenham in the run-in when he could carve himself a place in North London folklore with a goal or two at the right time.

At the moment, however, it is Okazaki that looks likelier to make the vital difference.

Son is just 23, six years younger, and his time will come whether at Spurs or elsewhere. Korean fans would love nothing more than to see their favourite Son lift the famous English trophy but there would be not too much complaining even in Seoul if Asian glory in England goes to Okazaki and Leicester.