By Dan Orlowitz | Japanese Football Editor
The last year has been a rollercoaster month for Japan as the team has largely flourished under manager Alberto Zaccheroni. Compared to 15, 10, and even five years ago, more Japanese players than ever are challenging themselves in Europe and succeeding in the continent's top divisions.
But some Japanese players struggled to break through, with Tomaki Makino, Kisho Yano, Yuki Abe, and Masahiko Inoha returning to Japan. Takashi Usami languished on the Bayern bench, while Samurai Blue captain Makoto Hasebe struggled at Wolfsburg. Promising players such as Tadanari Lee and Keisuke Honda had injury-shortened seasons, while newcomers like Mike Havenaar and Gotoku Sakai began to prove their potential.
On the whole positive performances far outnumbered the negative, and to reflect this Goal.com has put together its top-five Japanese players in Europe for the 2011-12 season. One thing is for certain: if Japan continues to send players of such high calibre overseas, next year's selection will be even more difficult.
The former Urawa Reds man had an impressive season with Augsburg, who some would argue overachieved in their first-ever Bundesliga season in finishing in 14th and avoiding relegation. Hosogai's first goal in the top flight came in September against Leverkusen, the team that had loaned him to Augsburg in the first place. In Round 25 against Dortmund, he proved to be the only defensive player in the league capable of shutting down Shinji Kagawa. Hosogai will likely return to Leverkusen next season and has proven himself more than capable of holding his own in Germany.
Though not necessarily as flashy as some of his peers, 23-year-old Yoshida’s steady play was instrumental in VVV Venlo’s Eredivisie survival after they managed to scrape through the recent promotion-relegation play-off. The centre-back put in 32 appearances, and his five goals were tied for second-best in the team.
The highlight of Yoshida’s season came in September, when his right-footed bicycle-kick snuck under the crossbar to give VVV a 3-2 lead against PSV. Though the visitors equalised late, the goal was still voted best of the year by the league.
The 29-year-old had another monster season between the posts in the Belgium Pro League, conceding just 36 goals - fifth best in the league. But Lierse’s position players utterly failed to support their captain as they managed to score a league-worst 24 goals.
Unfortunately for the supporters who voted Kawashima as MVP for a second year in a row, he's already turned down an extension and has reportedly set his sights on Serie A giants AC Milan. With the World Cup just two years away and young goalkeepers like Shuichi Gonda rising up the depth charts, the former Kawasaki Frontale man may only have a few years left to make his Italian dream a reality.
In his first full season at Stuttgart, Okazaki found his pacing with seven goals in 26 appearances including a remarkable three-game streak in February. The 26-year-old’s production fell off in the spring due to injury, but if anything the winter arrival of fellow Japanese Gotoku Sakai helped as the two combined often in plotting dynamic attacks up the sides. Next season should prove even more fruitful, as with Kagawa’s expected departure to England Okazaki will have the chance to emerge as the top Japanese striker in the Bundesliga.
There’s little that hasn’t already been written about Kagawa’s performance this season, but it goes without saying that he is the undisputed choice for Japan's top performer in Europe. If he does indeed head to the Premier League next season, he’ll be remembered as a crucial part of the Dortmund squad that earned won two Bundesliga titles as well as this year’s DfB-Pokal. And yet at the age of 23, it's clear that Shinji Kagawa has his best years ahead of him, at Manchester United or any other club lucky enough to secure his services.
Do you agree with Goal.com's Top Five Japanese in Europe for this season? If not, who do you think should be on the list?
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