Watching Leicester City play, it’s important to keep an eye on Shinji Okazaki, a Japan striker who is providing boundless energy to a club that is making a fairy-tale run toward the title of the prestigious Premier League.
Okazaki and Leicester faced Southampton at home on Sunday and the 29-year-old showed some signs of fatigue, mostly stemming from the long flight after playing in Japan’s 2018 World Cup qualifier against Syria five days before in Saitama. Still, the striker was a threat to the opponent by sneaking into the box numerous times.
Leicester notched its fourth straight 1-0 victory, solidifying its lead atop the league standings. Now Leicester — which was languishing in the second-tier League Championship just two seasons ago — moved seven points ahead of second-place Tottenham with six games remaining.
Okazaki offered his take on Leicester’s unlikely march to the title at a Japan training session ahead of the Syria game.
“We have players with differing styles, all of whom are working at their full potential,” he said, adding, “Their efforts have come together to form a very strong unit.”
Okazaki is a prime example of what he offered as a reason for the team’s success. The striker, who moved to Leicester from German side Mainz this season, has so far scored five goals. His contribution, however, goes beyond what the statistics show. He helps support the team’s solid defense by providing relentless pressure up front. The fact that manager Claudio Ranieri has chosen Okazaki to start the past 12 games is evidence of the amount of trust he has in the player.
And Okazaki’s fifth goal, which came on March 14 against Newcastle, was invaluable. The striker deftly struck a high-arching headed pass with a spectacular bicycle kick to net the lone goal of the match — the strike being Leicester’s only on-target attempt.
“This is a goal I will never forget,” Okazaki said after the game.
Born in Hyogo Prefecture, Okazaki joined Shimizu S-Pulse in 2005 after graduating from Takigawa Daini High School. As a player without outstanding physical abilities — he stands just 1.74 meters and lacks breakaway speed — it took time for him to distinguish himself at the J.League club.
But Okazaki made all-out efforts to survive every day, making incremental improvements. In 2009, he was chosen for the J.League’s Best XI.
Two years later, he left Shimizu to join German club Stuttgart. He next played two seasons at Mainz, scoring 27 goals before joining Leicester.
Along the way, the striker has grown to become a commanding presence on the national team. In the latest Asian second-round qualifiers against Afghanistan and Syria, he propelled the Samurai Blue to back-to-back 5-0 victories.
Japan finished atop Group E to progress to the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
In the March 24 game against Afghanistan, Okazaki demonstrated his scoring ability on Japan’s first goal in the 43rd minute. With his back to the goal just outside the box, he spun as he received a pass and evaded a defender with a smooth move before unleashing a shot and finding the net.
The goal was his 48th with the Samurai Blue, extending his tally as the third-highest player in Japan’s all-time scoring list.
He did not score five days later against Syria, but aggressively attacked the goal to give the team momentum as Okazaki celebrated his 100th cap with a crushing victory at Saitama Stadium.
After being tossed into the air by teammates after the match, Okazaki pledged to continue to improve his game.
“As a hungry 29-year-old, I will continue to work hard to improve,” he said.
The prospects for Leicester to win its first league title in its 132-year history are not clear yet. Only four teams — giants Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City — have won the title over the past 20 years. Leicester, which was 14th last season, has two tough away games remaining against Man U and Chelsea.
No Japanese attacker has ever found success in the Premier League. If the industrious Okazaki helps the Foxes win their first title, not only the team but the player himself will leave an unforgettable legacy on the league.Speech