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Aug 31, 2013

Asia looks to Anfield for Kagawa

Borussia Dortmund can match Manchester United on the pitch, off it, there is a long way to go. If Shinji Kagawa sat on the bench for a couple of games in Germany, outside the Ruhr and Japan, few would notice. When it happens at Old Trafford, the world sits up. Cheeky expressions of interest in the player have come from Spain and Dortmund fans have launched a 'Free Shinji' campaign. And heck, it comes to something when even the Korean and Chinese media are wondering why the Japanese star is not playing for Manchester United.

Sitting on the bench against Swansea on the opening weekend was understandable as the 24 year-old had been in action for Japan in midweek, but when it happened against Chelsea, it was a little baffling. Some said he is short of match-fitness but he looked pretty sharp when playing 90 minutes and scoring against Uruguay at home. Even if he is not in peak condition, United's squad must be threadbare indeed if they have to include a player on the bench who is incapable of even 15-20 minutes in the closing stages of a game.

It may be premature but that doesn't stop people being worried. Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp said recently that Kagawa was one of the best in the world and it made him cry to see him stuck on the left. One wonders what he would make of the player on the bench. A worldwide audience was close to tears of boredom last Monday as the Red Devils took on Jose Mourinho's men. Not only did he not start but he stayed still when Ashley Young and Ryan Giggs were introduced. After the game, United boss David Moyes lamented his team's lack of cutting final ball - a statement begging a question almost as much as the game was begging for Kagawa.

This is supposed to be the season in which the ex-Cerezo Osaka man really starts to show what he can do. His first season at Old Trafford after signing from Borussia Dortmund, where he won two Bundesliga titles in two seasons, in the summer of 2012, was a little stop-start. A two-month injury absence in October and November did not help, but later in the campaign he started to find his groove and memorably hit a hat-trick, the first Asian player to do so in England's top-flight, in a March mauling of Norwich City. There were signs that he was ready to step ahead of Wayne Rooney and move behind the main man Robin Van Persie, later amplified by the fact that the England star didn't seem to even want to play for the club any more.

Rooney now looks set to stay and play more often than not and that will leave Kagawa looking left for the majority of his playing time. Much is made of his preference for a central role but he plays out wide for Japan and wanders to the middle habitually – just as he did last season under Alex Ferguson – where his interplays with Keisuke Honda can be a joy to watch. Fans may say that he has to work more to fit in to the English/United game, and while that is true to a point, you don't buy a player like Kagawa and force him to fit into a certain style – you buy him because he adds an extra dimension. Giggs told Japanese media in the summer that his talented team-mate can do things that the club's other players can't.

What is starting to be discussed back east is whether Kagawa is a Moyes player. Everton, for all their history, success and tradition, are not a big brand in East Asia. For most, the only opportunity to watch the Blues in recent years came when they played against one of the really big boys such as Manchester United and Liverpool. The Scot's record in those games was not impressive and, for the most part, neither was the football. It is a reputation that has stuck for most fans and journalists as that is all they know of the man. It may be early days, but selecting the limited Valencia and Young ahead of Kagawa doesn't do much to change perceptions.

It's only two games but European fans are unaware as to just how sensitive their Asian counterparts, as well as the media, can be with regards to the quantity and quality of game time their stars receive in the big leagues. Reasons for an absence from the line-up are analysed, the performance of competitors scrutinised and the meaning of it all agonized over. It is endless, and the debate over Kagawa's Chelsea absence shifted seamlessly into a discussion as to what will happen at Liverpool.

Headlines from match reports (many filed by journalists actually living in the city for the single purpose of following their compatriot) put the player's status on a par with the result and understandably so when the vast majority of readers are more interested as to whether Kagawa played, and how he played, rather than whether his team won or not.

Perhaps, say some, Kagawa will have to accept a Park Ji-Sung like status, that of an important squad player and one who, at his best, drifted close to regular starter at various times in his Old Trafford spell. Almost all players would settle for such a role at such a club. Park had a glittering career at United with domestic and continental titles (though competition for places was clearly stronger for the majority of the Korean's time in England than it is at the moment).There is the fact too that old Three Lungs often played in the big games (this was not always a positive and it was a lacklustre performance against Manchester City in April 2012, his first start for a while, that signalled the beginning of the end of his United career) and tended to shine against the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and AC Milan.

Kagawa will want more. He is going to get games this season but the question is how many and what kind. United's next two games will be telling – away at Liverpool and at home to Crystal Palace. A start at Anfield on Sunday and a good performance could give the player what he really needs – a sustained run in the team, although he will soon be back in East Asia for international duty – a punishing journey that cost Park playing time and fitness over the years.

It could be the catalyst for his season to begin. Yet, if he is as idle at Anfield on Sunday as Luis Suarez then alarm bells will start to ring regardless of whether he appears against the Eagles. Ideally, Kagawa wants to be playing against both Liverpool and Palace but if he has to choose one, then it is not a difficult choice. Pulling on the famous shirt to face newly-promoted clubs is not what tempted one of Europe's hottest properties to swap Westfalenstadion for Old Trafford.

It would be a shame if Manchester United fail to get the best out of Shinji Kagawa, though it would perhaps hurt the club more as the player would surely shine elsewhere. There is suddenly a good deal of interest in whether he plays on Sunday and not just in Japan. If United don't want him, plenty do.

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