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Kagawa returns to changed landscape at high-flying United

by Andrew Mckirdy

Shinji Kagawa will not have expected anything to come easy when he joined Manchester United last summer, but having returned from injury over the holiday period to a team that has been winning in his absence, the forward will have to work overtime to establish himself at Old Trafford.

Kagawa completed 65 minutes of United’s 2-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion on Dec. 29, marking an end to a two-month spell on the sidelines after a knee injury interrupted his promising start to life with the English giants. A substitute appearance against Wigan Athletic followed before a full 90-minute stint in last Saturday’s F.A. Cup draw with West Ham United, but the 23-year-old will need more games under his belt before he can return to the level of performance that offered a glimpse of what he was capable of early on in the season.

Kagawa announced his arrival in the Premier League with a series of fine displays capped by goals against Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur, suggesting the first Japanese player ever to appear for United would have little difficulty finding his feet after joining from Borussia Dortmund over the summer. Injuries have no respect for timing, however, and with United currently seven points clear at the top of the table thanks to an attack that has been firing on all cylinders while Kagawa watched from the stands, nailing down a regular place in the starting lineup now looks a much more difficult prospect.

Kagawa can at least take reassurance from his experiences in Germany, where a brilliant first season with Dortmund in 2010-11 was curtailed by a broken foot suffered on international duty at the Asian Cup in Qatar. The forward made a tentative start to the following campaign as he felt his way back into action, but soon hit his stride to lead the Ruhr club to its second straight championship and attract the attention of Europe’s most glamorous suitors.

The competition for attacking places at Old Trafford is significantly fiercer than it was at Dortmund, however, with Robin van Persie in imperious form, Javier Hernandez restored to his predatory best, and a host of internationals such as Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young all vying for manager Alex Ferguson’s attention. Kagawa had to be content with a midfield berth far deeper than he prefers against West Ham, and the result was not encouraging with the former Cerezo Osaka man unable to exert any real influence on a game that largely passed him by.

That is understandable given his lack of match sharpness, and Ferguson’s tendency to shuffle his lineup and tactics on a regular basis means Kagawa will undoubtedly get his chance to reprise the central playmaking role he performed so well at Dortmund. For all the attacking riches at Ferguson’s disposal, Kagawa’s subtlety, guile and deftness of touch give the manager an option that no one else in his squad can provide, and one that could give United the edge in the more cerebral environment of the Champions League.

Kagawa clearly has the talent to make himself an integral part of the Old Trafford machinery, and his low-key start could yet work to his advantage if the spotlight on others such as Van Persie allows him to bed in with the minimum of fuss.

But for now the feeling is one of frustration. Arriving at one of the world’s biggest clubs with the responsibility of providing the creative spark was always going to make Kagawa’s job difficult, and being denied the confidence boost that comes with a smooth start has certainly not helped his cause.

Not for the first time in his career, Kagawa will have to do it the hard way.