Mainz - By his own admission, the pre-match warm-up at the Mercedes-Benz Arena last Saturday “didn't feel great, because I never did too well there”. did well enough on his first trip back, however, netting the 39th-minute equaliser that helped 1. FSV Mainz 05 to an eventual 2-1 win away to his former employers, VfB Stuttgart.
Back to the front
The 27-year-old Japan international managed to pick up seamlessly where he had left off before the winter break, when his last-gasp strike secured 1. FSV Mainz 05 another maximum haul on the road, then at Hamburger SV. In fact, Okazaki's overall contribution of two goals and an assist in that 3-2 victory even earned him top spot in the final 2013 Player of the Week poll on the league's official English-language website, bundesliga.com.
Over the piece, FSV's new frontman has undeniably enjoyed an upturn in fortunes since swapping VfB Stuttgart for Mainz last summer. In the two-and-a-half years spent at his first port of call in Germany, he managed a modest return of ten goals in 63 Bundesliga outings. In the 17 games he has featured in this season, by contrast, Okazaki has rattled the back of the net nine times already.
It sounds, on the face of it, like a radical upturn in personal fortunes and in purely goalscoring terms it clearly is just that. But the man from Takarazuka, north-west of Osaka, was by no means regarded as a failure at Stuttgart, who had snapped him up from Shimizu S-Pulse on a free transfer at the start of 2011 and tried to negotiate a new deal before his contract ran into its final year. Indeed, VfB sporting director Fredi Bobic acknowledged a touch ruefully in the run-up to the Matchday 18 reunion that “he's a great striker with an incredible mentality. But at the end of his time with us, he was just lacking self-confidence”.
Okazaki has a straightforward explanation for why that may latterly, at least in part, have been the case: “At Stuttgart I was mostly deployed in midfield, whereas here at Mainz I tend to play up front or in the hole directly behind the striker. And that's my strongest position.” Thomas Tuchel evidently agrees and the FSV head coach has made no secret of the fact that the tireless Japanese frontman had long been in his sights: “We always took a very close look at him when we played Stuttgart and admired his good movement and work rate.”
Bang on course for the World Cup
Those qualities and, more generally, his sheer unwavering dedication, make Okazaki an invaluable contributor in a team heavily reliant on a particularly intensive counter-pressing game. “He'll run himself into the ground up front,” noted sporting director Christian Heidel, who sees the summer signing as the perfect fit for Mainz. A goal on his Bundesliga debut for them in the first season meeting with Stuttgart certainly augured well, but Okazaki then had to wait over two months for the next one. A match-winning brace against Eintracht Braunschweig at the end of October proved the catalyst for a net-bulging renaissance, and he is now firmly established as Tuchel's central striker of choice.
With a scoring return of almost a goal every other game at international level (35 in 72 senior appearances), Okazaki is likely to have an equally pivotal role to play for Japan at the upcoming FIFA World Cup finals. He helped the Samurai Blue through to the first knockout round in South Africa four years ago and, holding down a regular first-team berth in his favoured position and with his eye for the main chance evidently re-honed, is well on course to get another bite at the cherry this summer in Brazil.
If so, he will have plenty of Bundesliga colleagues for company as Japan's finest continue to make their presence felt in ever greater numbers at the top end of the German game. And if, in comparison with some of them, he perhaps slipped somewhat under the radar in his first couple of seasons, Shinji Okazaki is certainly making up for lost time now.
Fortunes in turnaround
His stint on Wearside was to prove frustrating for player and club alike, amounting to the sum total of 24 Premier League outings, only four of them from the start. A last-gasp winner at home to Manchester City on New Year's Day 2012 provided a rare highlight and twelve months later Sunderland, FC Augsburg and the player himself agreed terms on the temporary deal that was to eventually open up a whole new horizon. Another less than satisfying half-season on the fringes of the Premier League action had to be negotiated before he found his way back to the Fuggerstadt, but that is all water under the bridge now for Dong-Won Ji. “I wanted to move this winter to get more playing time and keep myself in contention for a ticket to the World Cup in Brazil,” he told the FC Augsburg website; “I had a great time here last season, so coming back was an easy decision.”
In stark contrast to the first time around, he joins a club riding a wave of success they could scarcely have foreseen themselves, sitting pretty in eighth place on a healthy 24 points. Consolidating that position and reaffirming his own ability to produce the goods in another of the world's top leagues are the initial targets. Beyond that, there is the global football extravaganza in Brazil to look forward to this summer – and then a fresh start at one of the Bundesliga's, and Europe's, most dynamic and exciting clubs, to the backdrop of the biggest average crowds in the world game. For Ji, it looks like the only way from here is up.