Kiyotake to follow in Kagawa’s footsteps

Kiyotake to follow in Kagawa’s footsteps

By Matt Kenny

Last season was a landmark one for Japanese football as Atsuto Uchida became the first player from the Land of the Rising Sun to play in the semi-finals of the Champions League, as he started both legs of Schalke’s eventual battering by Manchester United.

Kagawa has made a name for himself at Dortmund

While Uchida hardly covered himself in glory it was encouraging to see a Japanese player plying his trade at the very highest level and was symbolic of the footballing progress the country has made over the last 10 years.

But there are now Japanese players emerging that possess the quality to star in Europe rather than play a peripheral role and it is time for the Nihonjin to shine on the continent for years to come.

This year’s Champions League sees the rising star of Japanese football, Shinji Kagawa, take centre stage as his Borussia Dortmund side embark on the biggest club competition in world football for the first time in eight seasons. The German champions were magnificent last season as they swatted away all-comers to march to the Bundesliga crown and much of that success was due the form of the dynamic Kagawa during the first half of the season.

Having moved for a lowly £300,000 from Cerezo Osaka in August 2010, Kagawa was given no bedding-in period and the 22-year old was thrust into the Dortmund side from the get-go where he would be under pressure to perform in front of the 80,000 strong crowd that the Westfalenstadion draws every week.

But Kagawa didn’t appear to be intimidated, rather inspired by BVB’s immense support and he soon became an integral part of Jürgen Klopp’s side with his pace and trickery combining perfectly with the guile of Mario Gotze and the vision of Nuri Sahin.

While Kagawa’s eight goals in 18 league games made him a star in Germany, he remains somewhat unknown across the rest of Europe and only outstanding Champions League performances will change that, with Bundesliga coverage relatively scarce in England, Italy and Spain. But after impressing in Dortmund’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal on Tuesday it doesn’t look like it will take long for the name Shinji Kagawa to be on the lips of football fans around the globe and Japan now has a leader to take the new generation of Nippon Daihyō to the next level.

The rise of Kagawa means that scouts are travelling in droves to watch J.League games in the hope that they can unearth the next big thing, with German clubs in particular taking advantage of Japanese clubs’ lack of financial clout.

Teenage forward Takashi Usami recently moved to Bayern Munich on loan while attacking midfielder Takashi Inui moved from Cerezo Osaka to Bundesliga.2 side Bochum earlier in the summer. This means Cerezo have lost both Kagawa and Inui to German clubs within the space of 12 months and it might not be long before another midfield talent boards a first-class flight from Osaka to superstardom.

Kiyotake has impressed this season at Cerezo Osaka

Enter Hiroshi Kiyotake, Cerezo Osaka’s midfield prodigy and perhaps the most exciting young player in the J.League today.

Standing 5ft 8 and possessing the same eye for goal, dynamism, vision and exceptional control as his predecessors, you could be forgiven if you thought Cerezo had some sort of cloning machine that produced a new midfielder every year to replace the latest departure; such are the similarities between Kagawa, Inui and Kiyotake.

Pacy, short-of-stature midfielders with immaculate technique are highly coveted at the moment, with Samir Nasri and Luka Modric two of the most-wanted players during the summer transfer window. But players of that type are becoming increasingly rare and within a few years I wouldn’t be if surprised every major European club had a talented Japanese midfielder in their ranks, such is the regularity with which the country produces the players that so many clubs now desire.

Having already reached double figures this season, 21-year old Kiyotake will surely spend at least another 6-7 months in the J.League before a big European club comes calling. I’d like to see him move to Spain or Italy, where his technical qualities will be fully appreciated and his talents will be showcased to a worldwide audience. He already has the quality to play for a high-calibre team and a move to league such as the Eredivisie would be a bit of a waste of time.

It’s really a win-win for any club that is lucky enough to sign Kiyotake, since he is young, versatile, talented and will cost £1million at most, meaning there is no risk in the unlikely event his move doesn’t work out.

Add to that the fact that Asian players are great for marketing and it’s hard to see him moving to anything less than a Champions League team. Hopefully by this time next year we will be talking about which Japanese youngster will be next to join Kagawa and Kiyotake on the biggest stage of them all as the Land of the Rising Sun looks set to become a real force for years to come thanks to their army of miniature midfield magicians.

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