Hanover - It was a moment to savour and savour it he did, with the aid of his similarly elated teammates: 41 minutes into Sunday's Bundesliga Matchday 11 closer at Werder Bremen, Hiroki Sakai put the cap on a pulsating first-half contest with a 25-metre strike which dipped over the outstretched arm of home keeper Sebastian Mielitz and in off the underside of the bar.
Looking to up his assist rate
The Japanese right back's fulminating effort got Hannover 96 back to 2-2 going into the break and looking well set to finally take something tangible from their Bundesliga travels at the fifth time of asking this season. Unfortunately for the 96ers it was not to be, as Santiago Garcia netted in the dying minutes of an altogether more subdued second half to condemn them to yet another away defeat. Spectacular or not, Sakai's first goal in what was his 24th outing in the German top flight was scant consolation for the player himself, who admitted after the match to being “very disappointed that it didn't work out again away from home. It's bound to change at some point – but I can't really put my finger on the reason for it”.
Indeed, and not for the first time, Hannover turned in a highly respectable performance with even Bremen coach Robin Dutt acknowledging that “a draw would have been a perfectly fair result”. While the Lower Saxony club accordingly remain rooted firmly at the bottom of the 2013/14 Bundesliga away-form standings, they do also have some of the toughest fixtures of the season behind them already. The trips to Borussia Mönchengladbach, Bayer 04 Leverkusen, FC Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund all went unrewarded but, with the exception of the 2-0 loss at Leverkusen, the 96ers acquitted themselves well on each occasion.
Sakai, who joined Hannover in the summer of 2012 from hometown club and surprise new J-League champions Kashiwa Reysol, has been an ever-present in the starting XI this season. That in itself is proof positive of the place the 23-year-old has in Mirko Slomka's forward planning – literally as well as temporally, with the head coach having already deployed him on occasion in an advanced role out wide as opposed to his more usual, and preferred, full back berth.
If the piledriver at Bremen was anything to go by, Sakai certainly has plenty to contribute at the sharp end of the proceedings as well as further back. “I wanted to take a crack at goal rather than play in a cross and it was a great feeling when it hit the back of the net,” he said following only his second shot on goal in Germany’s top flight. His main role when he gets forward, however, will remain that of provider and accordingly, “I want to lay on more chances that actually lead to us scoring in future”.
'The kind of player we want'
How often he will get the opportunity to do so is of course also dependent on the extent to which Slomka opts to run a variation on his favoured deep-lying counter-attacking style. The coach has at any rate long since made clear that, whatever role he is asked to fill, “Hiroki's the kind of player we want. He can take criticism on board and deal with it constructively.” Sakai demonstrated that capability in abundance in what was by no means an easy first year in Germany, not least in terms of finding his feet in a radically new environment.
Now altogether more settled both on and off the pitch and enjoying regular first team football in probably Europe's most competitive top league, he is certainly doing no harm to his chances of booking a ticket with the Japan national team to next summer's World Cup finals in Brazil either. All-in-all, Hiroki Sakai is well on the way to joining the growing list of genuine far eastern success stories in the Bundesliga.