Shinji Okazaki: Chart-topping superstar or one-hit wonder?
The case for, by Michael Church
Shinji Okazaki: English Premier League champion
That’s a phrase not many would have ever thought would be written in anything other than fantasy or fun, but by the middle of last year it was fact as Leicester City pulled off one of the biggest shocks in world sport.
The story of Leicester’s success is remarkable and the part played by Okazaki cannot be underestimated
The magnitude of Leicester’s win depends on your perspective. Some think it the greatest upset of all time in English football and one of the greatest in the history of the game.
Others – myself included – think it pales in comparison to Nottingham Forest winning back-to-back European Cups more than three decades ago. That, though, does not undermine its magnitude.
Wherever you stand, the story of Leicester’s success is remarkable and the part played by Okazaki cannot be underestimated.
While Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy claimed the headlines and N’golo Kante many of the plaudits, Okazaki was an integral part of Claudio Ranieri’s odds-beating champions.
From the start of 2016 through to the end of the season, Okazaki was an integral part of the starting line-up as the Foxes defied belief week after week until the most unlikely of title wins was secured, with Leicester City becoming a byword for the triumph of the underdog.
The irony is, after an impressive stint in the Bundesliga, first with Stuttgart and then Mainz, there were many – again, myself included – who thought Okazaki had aimed low with a move to Leicester.
Okazaki was still able to show his importance to the team, becoming the latest Japanese player to score in the UEFA Champions League
His performances for both club and country over the preceding years had proven the former Shimizu S-Pulse man deserved better than joining a club facing the prospect of perpetual struggle against relegation.
And yet, within a year of moving to England, Leicester and Okazaki were champions. Was it a coincidence?
Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing, either for Okazaki or the Foxes.
There can be little doubt his form suffered in the second half of the year as Ranieri tinkered and the club attempted to boost its attacking options with the signing of Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani.
Yet Okazaki was still able to show his importance to the team, becoming the latest Japanese player to score in the UEFA Champions League in his club’s win over Brugge in November.
Ranieri himself was forced to admit as much.
"In this moment we play better with Shinji Okazaki," said the Italian after a 2-1 defeat in November at the hands of West Bromwich Albion. "Today, we didn't, but often we do.”
So does Okazaki deserve to be considered amongst the very best of the current crop of players in Asia for exploits throughout 2016?
Well, consider this: only two Asian players – Park Ji-sung and Shinji Kagawa – have ever won the Premier League title. And while I’m no Premier League acolyte, that has to be acknowledged as a major achievement.
Other players will garner support: Omar Abdulrahman, Omar Al Somah, Zheng Zhi and any number of domestically based players have their backers as the best in the continent.
But to my mind those players aren’t being tested in the way those who are based in Europe are day in, day out.
At many European clubs the training sessions are tougher than league matches in most Asian nations. To excel in European football and to do so consistently is a sign of a player being at a higher level.
This is what Okazaki has done and he has done it for a club that was punching far above its weight.
How can Shinji Okazaki not be considered one of the continent’s finest?