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Thursday, April 5, 2012

SOCCER SCENE

Kagawa ready to take place among world's elite


Shinji Kagawa set a new goalscoring mark for Japanese players in Europe last weekend, but if the Borussia Dortmund forward's career continues on the same trajectory, it will not be the last record he breaks.

Andrew McKirdy

Kagawa notched his 12th goal of the Bundesliga season in Dortmund's 4-4 draw with Stuttgart last Friday, going one better than the previous first-division best set by Naohiro Takahara with Eintracht Frankfurt in 2006-07. Dortmund leads the table by three points from Bayern Munich with six games left to play, and with Kagawa in such blistering form it would be no surprise if he adds more before the campaign is over.

The 23-year-old has been irrepressible in recent weeks, scoring five times in March alone and taking center stage as Dortmund attempts to retain its Bundesliga title. The Ruhr club's championship ambitions looked in serious jeopardy when playmaker Mario Goetze was ruled out for several months with a groin injury in December, but Kagawa has taken the responsibility onto his shoulders and filled the gap superbly.

The outlook was certainly not so bright earlier in the season, with a sluggish Dortmund crashing out in the first round of the Champions League and Kagawa struggling to hit the heights as he felt his way back from the broken foot that had curtailed his brilliant debut year in Germany.

News photo
Should I stay or should I go?: Shinji Kagawa must decide whether to extend his contract with Borussia Dortmund. AP

But the former Cerezo Osaka man has recovered to such an extent that he will surely be in player-of-the-year-award contention come the end of the season, and Europe's biggest clubs have not been slow to take notice with his current contract due to expire in summer 2013.

Dortmund has responded by offering Kagawa a new deal that would double his wages, and there is certainly a case to be made for staying put. Kagawa is settled in one of Europe's most dynamic teams, working under a manager in Jurgen Klopp who plays to his strengths, and playing alongside teammates who bring the best out of him. Tellingly, Klopp and Goetze have already extended their deals until 2016.

But Kagawa is an ambitious young man, and it seems inconceivable that he will not be plying his trade at one of Europe's blue-chip destinations sooner or later. Kagawa would find no shortage of suitors should he decide to move this summer, and given how much he has improved since joining Dortmund in 2010, the prospect of taking his game a step further must be tantalizing indeed.

Regardless of where he plays next season, Kagawa's importance to the national team remains undiminished. The past 12 months have not always been easy for a player who sometimes appears to be trying too hard to make a difference for his country, but there is no doubting who manager Alberto Zaccheroni will place his trust in when the World Cup qualifiers come round in June.

Now that Japan has booked its place at the London Olympics, the Italian may not be the only one calling on Kagawa's services this summer. Olympic team manager Takashi Sekizuka will surely name the forward in his Under-23 squad if his club agrees to release him, and after being part of the team that disappointed in Beijing four years ago, the desire to set the record straight will be strong.

The coming months, then, are clearly an important time for Kagawa, but it is hard to shake the feeling that this is a player hauling himself up to a new level before our very eyes. Dortmund's title challenge would simply not have been possible without him, and a second successive Bundesliga shield this summer would be a hugely impressive achievement.

What comes after that, however, is another story.



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