Hamburg - is the man for scoring braces this season. 1. FSV Mainz 05’s Japanese international has three already this season, all of them coming in his last eight matches and the latest topped off with a stoppage-time winner at Hamburger SV on Matchday 17.
The 3-2 victory at the Imtech Arena took the Carnival club to 24 points for the season, away from the immediate danger of the relegation places and into the winter break high on confidence after what has been a taxing 2012/13 season so far. Little wonder, then, that Okazaki himself wore the widest smile of all at the final whistle, telling bundesliga.com, "Scoring two goals obviously makes it a fantastic day for me."
Indeed, Mainz have extricated themselves from the developing relegation battle with something to spare at the season’s halfway mark. With two wins and two draws in their last four matches, they now sit pretty in ninth place, just four points off Hertha Berlin in the final European place, and their excellent recent run of form is in no small part down to the sensational performances of marksman Okazaki.
The 27-year-old netted two in the win at Werder Bremen and again in a 1-1 draw in Nuremberg, before his match-winning contribution against Hamburg. According to his coach Thomas Tuchel, he is now beginning to the deliver on his promise and show the quality that convinced the club to sign him from VfB Stuttgart in the summer.
Tuchel: 'We analysed him specifically'
"At the moment Shinji is exactly the player that we saw in the years that we observed him," said Tuchel. "When we played Stuttgart, we analysed him specifically, his strengths, his clever movement and the work he puts in. It’s great that he’s now getting his rewards."
Okazaki is indeed making hay in this current purple patch of his, as well as breaking a number of personal records. He is now the first Japanese player to score three braces in the Bundesliga and has already netted more goals this term - eight - than in any of his previous two seasons in the Bundesliga. Furthermore, he also set up Mainz’s second goal against HSV for strike partner Nicolai Müller, his first assist in his 79th top-flight appearance.
With seven wins as well as seven defeats on the board, it has been something of an up and down first half of the season for Mainz, but the way they have completed the Hinrunde bodes extremely well for the challenges to come in the New Year.
"If we can carry on like this, we can climb a few more places and compete a bit higher in the table," believes Okazaki, before adding that "getting into the Europa League would be great." Repeating the club’s sensational fourth-place finish from 2010/11 will be no easy feat, but it will certainly be an easier task should Okazaki maintain what might just be the form of his life.
Michael Reis / Bernie Reeves