Kagawa on how to break down Singapore
Kagawa believes that is key to breaking down the Lions
SINGAPORE v JAPAN
(Tomorrow, 6.30pm, Singtel TV Ch 109 - Eleven)
Earphones plugged in and with his gaze fixed firmly ahead, Japan star Shinji Kagawa looked a picture of focus as he entered Bishan Stadium yesterday.
He paid absolutely no attention to the plethora of photographers snapping away at him and headed straight into the dressing room, before emerging shortly after with the same intense look..
His demeanour was perhaps expected, given Japan are here on a mission they are expected to accomplish: Collect maximum points in tomorrow's World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier against Singapore at the National Stadium.
Then, balls were brought out as the Samurai Blue were split into three groups for a warm-up game of monkey.
Almost every touch of his was deft, quick yet precise - the exact qualities that saw him first earn a move to Europe with German side Borussia Dortmund, before switching to English giants Manchester United.
But, within seconds of the start of the warm-up session, after witnessing a teammate make a comical mistake, Kagawa broke into a hearty laugh reminiscent of the one that had the Dortmund faithful falling in love with him, yet was conspicuously absent throughout most of his time at Old Trafford.
Even from the mere 15 minutes the media were allowed to witness before Japan closed the doors to yesterday's training session, it was clear for all to see.
Be it playfully flinging a training bib at Leicester striker Shinji Okazaki or sharing a joke with Inter Milan fullback Yuto Nagatomo, Kagawa - now back at Dortmund - is enjoying his football once again.
Still, while Japanese fans will be glad to see their key attacker smiling once more, it will be no laughing matter should they fail to beat the Lions tomorrow.
Kagawa started for Japan in their previous meeting with Singapore in Saitama back in June, only to be replaced just after an hour in the stunning 0-0 stalemate.
The 26-year-old Japanese believes they will be up against a similar test against the Lions tomorrow, and believes it is down to them to rise to the challenge.
"I'm expecting Singapore to adopt a very defensive approach once more," he said yesterday.
"This makes it important that we create as many chances as we can, and we also have to be clinical when the opportunities do come our way.
"We will also have to press the Singapore defenders much harder to prevent them from getting time on the ball, so the forwards will have to work hard. It's also important that we show better communication than we did (in the 0-0 draw)."
Having opened the scoring in Dortmund's 3-2 derby win over Schalke last Sunday, Kagawa, like Nagatomo, flew into Singapore only on Monday night.
Kagawa is still expected to be named in coach Vahid Halilhodzic's starting 11 tomorrow despite concerns over fatigue and jet-lag, and he insists he will do everything possible to be in top condition.
"Heavy," he replied, when asked how he was feeling after his first session in Singapore.
"But, over the next two days, I will continue to work hard to make sure I'm ready for the match."
On a wing and a prayer
In recent years, teams from all over the world have been trying to achieve one style of football - a fluid, one-touch, short-passing game through the middle.
Barcelona were arguably the first team to perfect it, Spain achieved success with it by winning three consecutive major titles from 2008 to 2012, while Germany are the most recent masters of the art following their World Cup triumph last year.
Over in Asia, the standard has long been set by Japan, with the style of play perfectly suited to their fleet-footed, technically gifted players.
But it appears that, in a bid to overcome Singapore in tomorrow's World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier at the National Stadium, the Japanese will revisit a tactical approach from a bygone era.
While Samurai Blue coach Vahid Halilhodzic may not exactly opt for a 4-4-2 against the Lions, it might not be a surprise if the Bosnian opts for some good, old-fashioned wing-play.
This could pave the way for someone like Hertha Berlin winger Genki Haraguchi, who started in both Japan's recent 6-0 and 3-0 triumphs over Afghanistan and Syria respectively, to make a real impact.
Speaking to reporters after yesterday's training session at Bishan Stadium, Haraguchi said: "We'll be looking to use the flanks and, of course, the timing of the attackers arriving in the box is very important.
"Having said that, we cannot just pump the ball in all the time with no real purpose.
"It depends on how our opponents set up as well but I believe Singapore will be defensive and, just like in our game against Afghanistan, we can use the flanks to create goals.
"The quality of the deliveries into the box will also be important."
If this is one tactic to confuse Singapore coach Bernd Stange, Japan appear to have rehearsed it well enough as Shinji Kagawa echoed his teammate's sentiments.
"This time, we have to make use of both wings properly," said the Borussia Dortmund star.
"If we have good movement on the wings, it will draw the defenders out and create openings for our attackers to score."
Should that be Japan's approach tomorrow, Halilhodzic will have several wide players in his 23-man squad to choose from.
Leicester hitman Shinji Okazaki is expected to be the focal point of the attack, but the likes of Haraguchi, Takashi Usami and Mu Kanazaki are all natural wingers.
Established Europe-based stars such as Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Yoshinori Muto are also adept at playing on the flanks too.
Despite the competition for starting places, Haraguchi is determined to prove his worth to Halilhodzic on the training ground.
Dismissing suggestions that the emergence of players like Muto and 20-year-old Takumi Minamino was a worry, he replied: "I'll just have to work hard and focus on showing my strengths to the coach."
- GABRIEL TAN
“It depends on how our opponents set up as well but I believe Singapore will be defensive and, just like in our game against Afghanistan, we can use the flanks to create goals.”
— Genki Haraguchi (above)