LONDON – Shinji Okazaki signed for Leicester last year expecting to be part of a fight for survival. It quickly turned into the most unlikely pursuit of the title in English Premier League history.
As the two-week international break starts, the forward heads home to Japan for World Cup qualifiers with Leicester five points clear at the summit of the world’s richest league.
“We are trying to stay modest,” Okazaki said in a recent interview with AP. “We are not seen as one of the top teams so there is less pressure. We just go out and work hard in every match and I think that’s the main reason for this miracle or this unbelievable run that is happening.”
And it’s continuing, thanks in no small part to the 29-year-old Okazaki and his acrobatics.
Okazaki’s overhead kick last week was a spectacular way to settle a scrappy match against Newcastle. Then on Saturday, Okazaki was a constant threat at Crystal Palace, coming close to scoring twice before fellow forward Riyad Mahrez secured Leicester’s third consecutive 1-0 win.
With seven games to go, the modest central England team is eking out wins to maintain a five-point cushion over second-place Tottenham. If Leicester collects the league trophy for the first time in May, Jamie Vardy and Mahrez will undoubtedly monopolize the plaudits.
Rightly so perhaps with 35 goals and 17 assists between them. But the contribution of Okazaki has been invaluable in his debut season in English soccer, playing a direct role in collecting 13 points with his five league goals. The 173-cm player makes up for his stature with a predatory instinct in the penalty area.
A €10 million ($11 million) summer signing from Mainz, Okazaki is the second most-expensive player in Leicester’s squad — a modest outlay compared with the tens of millions of pounds that rivals spend on individual players.
“He’s always there in the penalty or six-yard box,” Leicester teammate Marc Albrighton said. “That (goal against Newcastle) was definitely up there with one of the best this season. The skill and technique involved in his finish was superb.”
It was the sixth goal of his debut season in all competitions in English soccer, a tally that already matches compatriot Shinji Kagawa’s Manchester United haul from 2012 to 2014.
“People are paying attention (back home) and took notice when I signed with Leicester,” Okazaki said.
“They are watching on TV. I think it’s become a big thing back home, a lot of people are supporting me and I’m very happy for that.”
Okazaki now returns to Japan for World Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan and Syria when he will reach a century of international caps and hope to add to his 47 international goals.
“We need all our individual power and great teamwork like we have at Leicester,” said Okazaki, who was the most prolific scorer in international soccer in 2009. “We need players who can produce goals and as a forward that’s something I have to do.”
Then it will be back to Leicester for the final seven games of one of the most unpredictable seasons in English soccer history.
Leicester’s rise is as stunning as its recovery last season. A year ago, Leicester was bottom of the standings before mounting an incredible late charge out of the relegation zone. That form continued into the new season when Okazaki joined.
“It’s natural for some to feel unusual to be in this position but we don’t feel that way,” Okazaki said. “We know there are other teams who feel pressure so it’s important for us . . . to play our style and to be consistent.”
With the title in sight, Okazaki doesn’t want to throw away this winning position, having never won a trophy during spells back home at Shimizu S-Pulse or in Germany with Stuttgart and Mainz.
“In the past, I’ve never been part of a championship run like this so for me this is a great experience,” Okazaki said. “I have teammates who have produced great results and are very hard-working and supportive, which is a good combination.
“And it’s great to be part of such a team that is at the top of the league.”