OSAKA – Out-of-sorts Borussia Dortmund star Shinji Kagawa hopes to turn his stuttering season around after hailing his two-goal contribution to Japan’s 8-0 rout of Tajikistan as a psychological breakthrough.
Kagawa has struggled to reproduce the scintillating form he showed after joining German champions Dortmund last summer, making an indifferent start to the new Bundesliga campaign after returning from a broken foot sustained on national team duty at the Asian Cup in January.
But fans at Nagai Stadium were treated to the full range of the 22-year-old’s skills as he helped Japan rip the hapless Tajiks apart in their World Cup qualifying match on Tuesday, capping a fine performance with a razor-sharp finish in the first half and a curler from the edge of the box after the break.
“Psychologically, it’s a relief,” said Kagawa, who scored his first international goals since a double in a 3-0 friendly win over South Korea in August. “I’ve achieved something big today, and I’m delighted that I’ll be able to go back in a positive frame of mind.
“I’m really pleased with the first goal. But I made some simple mistakes in midfield, and I have to improve my accuracy because the qualifiers will get tougher now that we’ll be playing away from home.”
National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni was also pleased to see Kagawa find the net, but stressed the importance of considering his performance within the overall framework of the team.
“Kagawa can play out wide or in the center, he can get in the box and I’m fully aware of what an important player he is for us,” said Zaccheroni. “He has been trying very hard, and I’m happy that he scored.
“But if the team plays like it did tonight, if Kagawa doesn’t score then (Tadanari) Lee or (Kengo) Nakamura or (Shinji) Okazaki will. That’s the most important thing. Of course I’m happy that Kagawa scored, but more than that I’m happy with the way he moved off the ball compared to the last game.”
Japan now sits ahead of Uzbekistan on goal difference in qualifying Group C, with North Korea four points off the pace and the Tajiks rock bottom on zero with three games to play. The Central Asians were never likely to trouble Japan after making the third round only after Syria was disqualified for fielding an ineligible player, but Zaccheroni was aware that their lowly status presented its own particular challenge.
“There were big expectations on us, and I wanted to see how the team would be able to cope in that atmosphere,” the Italian said. “The players’ response was excellent. Of course we needed the result, but this team is a work in progress and continues to improve, so to get the result and the performance was important. The players kept up their full concentration until the final whistle.”
Tajikistan manager Alimzhon Rafikov was pessimistic before the match that his team — ranked 124th in the world — could cause an upset, and so it proved as Japan racked up its biggest win since beating Uzbekistan by the same score at the 2000 Asian Cup.
“Yesterday I said in the press conference that it would be very difficult for us, and it’s disappointing that the result turned out like this,” Rafikov said. “Their technique was just too much for us, and I have to congratulate Japan for a really great win. The gulf in quality was just too much.
“But I’m very grateful to my own players for keeping going until the end. Even though Japan were attacking us all the time, we never gave up.”