Kagawa struggling to shine
If Shinji Kagawa wanted to show Manchester United fans, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal what he can do when given the opportunity, then the 2014 World Cup has not gone according to plan. The only positive about his tournament so far is that his new club coach has his hands full coaching Netherlands and perhaps has not had the time to consider his plan for the out-of-sorts playmaker.
There is still one more chance, however. Japan's game with Colombia will not only determine whether they can get through to the knockout stage despite a poor start, but it will go a long way to determining whether an eminently forgettable season for Kagawa gets even worse or ends on a high. The Samurai Blue need a win and then require the right result from the other game between Ivory Coast and Greece.
However, he might not even play. The debate among United fans raged all last season: Was Moyes right to use the former Dortmund man only sparingly and often not in the position he favours? At least Kagawa had the national team to provide comfort during the past few months -- he may not love starting on the left, but at least he starts. Or he did. Against Greece, he was on the bench, his most common position this season.
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It was a big call from Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni, but it wasn't actually much of a shock. It is no secret that Kagawa struggled heading into the tournament, partly due to his stop/start season in England. Keisuke Honda was in a similar boat, visibly straining to establish some kind of rhythm and fluency in the warm-up games. The Milan man admitted as much but promised to come good when it mattered. Kagawa is a little quieter than his teammate, but neither approach seems to have worked.
Honda appeared to have turned the corner when he gave Samurai Blue a stunning lead against Ivory Coast in the opening match, and anything looked possible for the former CSKA Moscow star. He skipped past Yaya Toure as if he wasn't there, but since then Honda has struggled -- as have Japan, who went on to lose the opener 2-1 and then drew 0-0 with a 10-man Greece.
Kagawa didn't even have the good start. When he looks back on the Ivory Coast game, not much will stand out. He gave the ball away when he had it, and when he didn't he was fairly anonymous. It did not escape Zaccheroni's notice that both goals conceded came down Japan's left. Kagawa was sluggish, wasteful in possession, not contributing much going forward, and not helping out much at the back -- it didn't look good.
He later talked about the game, speaking candidly to the Japanese media, which is not something he often does. "I lost a battle with myself," Kagawa said.
"There was pressure and nerves and at the start I made mistakes, and I'm taking a good look at myself. I couldn't get into a good rhythm and was beaten psychologically. We went into the match thinking we would be able to do well going forward, but both myself and the team were stiff and couldn't move well."
He watched from the bench when Japan faced a well-organised Greek team, and it wasn't much consolation that in his absence Japan were not much better going forward.
Coming on as a second-half substitute against the 10 men, Kagawa looked like he meant business, but it didn't quite work out that way. He was livelier, but considering he saw a lot more of the ball in the opposition half, that is natural. The 24-year-old rarely misplaced a pass but just couldn't quite impose himself on the game. There were some useful passes, but the big one never quite happened.
The frustrating thing for Kagawa and Japan fans is that when it works, the team and player are a delight to watch. With Kagawa and Honda at their best, the whole attacking apparatus runs smoother, speedier and sleeker than the Shinkansen, the bullet train that connects cities in his home town.
Yet at the moment, Japan have been slow and sluggish. The machine can function to a reasonable degree when one of the pair misfires, but when both are rusty and out of sorts, it comes close to falling apart. That has to change against Colombia.
There is still time for Kagawa to start moving through the gears to give his team the kick start it needs. If he succeeds and Japan get the win, he may just end what has been an eminently forgettable season with something to smile about. If so, the whole of Japan and a significant proportion of Manchester will be equally happy.