TOKYO (Reuters) - In a Japanese team short of a real talisman, new coach Akira Nishino will be hoping Shinji Kagawa can provide much-needed sparkle to an otherwise efficient if unexciting World Cup squad.
The 29-year-old midfielder has had a frustrating career for club and country, flashing brilliance at times while failing to deliver at others during stints with Borussia Dortmund either side of a patchy two years at Manchester United.
However, when Dortmund boss Peter Stoeger took over in December Kagawa was a player instantly re-born, racking up goals and assists and looking like the man who lit up the Bundesliga during his first spell in Germany.
Unfortunately for Dortmund and Japan, Kagawa has been out with a series of ankle injuries since the turn of the year.
He returned to the first-team squad for Dortmund’s clash with Werder Bremen at the end of April and played in the 3-1 defeat by Hoffenheim on May 12.
Kagawa faces a race against time if he is to add to his 89 international appearances in Russia but Nishino, along with an expectant nation rightly proud of Kagawa’s impact on European soccer, knows his presence could be crucial.
In a Japanese side full of experienced, solid starters Kagawa would be the man tasked with unlocking opposing defenses with the sort of deft passing and rare vision that has seen him amass 17 assists for his country along with 29 goals.
Japan may have been joint top-scorers in the third round of Asian qualifying but they had to call on 12 different goal scorers in a disjointed and uninspiring campaign.
With a fully-fit and on-form Kagawa providing the assists for Shinji Okazaki and Genki Haraguchi -– Japan’s top scorer in qualifying with four goals -– the Japanese may have enough firepower to reach the second round for the third time in their history.
Reporting by Jack Tarrant, editing by Ed Osmond