Japanese strikers are making waves in the J.League
Shinji Okazaki has been busy giving the lie to the myth that Japanese strikers do not score. His hat tricks for Japan against Hong Kong and Togo in October brought his national ream tally to 14 goals in 18 games since earning his first cap against the UAE in October last year.
Okazaki had to wait for his fifth cap, against Yemen in January, to net his first national team goal but then the goal rush began: two against Finland in February, two against Chile and one each against Belgium and Uzbekistan in June, one against Ghana in September and then those two hat tricks in October.
Okazaki is a clever player, a constant runner who finds the gap and pops up where least expected to deftly touch, drive or nod in the goals. He could almost be accused of wastefulness but only because he gets into position so often that he has to miss quite a few. He has been ever present since his debut except for the Scotland match, when Takeshi Okada rested his top players, and is now one of the safest bets on the planet to play in South Africa next year.
The 23-year old joined Shimizu S-Pulse out of high school and played at the Beijing Olympics but was slow to make his mark in the J. League. Then something clicked. The floodgates opened from August last year with eight in Shimizu’s last 13 league games of the season. 2009 has been his annus mirabilis.
Shimizu acquired big Norwegian striker Frode Johnsen at the start of the season and if the partnership started slowly in March it briefly lifted Shimizu to the top of the table in October for the first time in a decade. Okazaki is fourth in the scoring ranking with 14 goals and Johnsen has nine.
It has been a long time since Japan had a high-scoring striker. In fact, midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura and defender Yuji Nakazawa are the top scorers in the current national team squad with 23 and 17 goals apiece.
It has also been a long time since the J.League had a Japanese top scorer. The last was Naohiro Takahara in 2002. Brazilians have won the prize every season since then. Right now, though, Ryoichi Maeda of Jubilo Iwata is top with 18 goals and there are three Japanese in the top four. Maeda has recently returned to the national team and is also well in the running for a place in South Africa.
Has Japan found a new proclivity for scoring? The national team has been belting them in this year, against Finland (5-1), Chile (4-0), Belgium (4-0), Ghana (4-3), Hong Kong (6-0) and Togo (5-0), taking a few carefully selected results! Japanese players are also featuring in some superb partnerships in the J. League.
Besides Okazaki and Johnsen at Shimizu, there is Maeda and Lee Keun Ho at Iwata, Shinzo Koroki and Marquinhos at Kashima Antlers, and Keiji Tamada and Josh Kennedy at Nagoya Grampus. 21-year old Takayuki Morimoto of Calcio Catania also looked very much the part in netting his first goal for Japan against Togo.
Granted, those J.League scoring rankings are misleading because of the Brazilians who have been taken away. Davi of Nagoya Grampus was top with 10 goals when he left for Umm-Salal of Qatar, and Leandro of Gamba Osaka was top with eleven when signed by Qatari side Al-Sadd.
There is also no saying that a Brazilian will not wind up top scorer again this year. The prime candidate is Kawasaki Frontale’s Juninho, the league’s top scorer in 2007 and currently second in the rankings with 16 goals. Juninho has established a superb partnership with North Korea striker Chong Tese and Kawasaki may be battling towards their first ever J. League championship with two (make that three with Renatinho) non-Japanese strikers.
Despite those qualifications, however, Japanese forwards have started to make their mark again and none more so than Shinji Okazaki. 2010 is going to be a big test for the man who suddenly became Japan’s ace striker this year.