Okazaki, Mooy light up Premier League, target World Cup qualification
They're two of the in-form players of the Premier League, and will come face-to-face on the international stage when Japan hosts Australia in a crucial World Cup qualifier next week.
But both Shinji Okazaki and Aaron Mooy, with three goals between them in the first two weeks of the English season, may still need to convince their respective national coaches after some underwhelming performances on the road to Russia 2018.
Okazaki has sat on the bench for all but one of Japan's last five qualifying matches in the AFC third round, while Mooy has been overshadowed by the likes of Tom Rogic, James Troisi and Massimo Luongo, as he struggles to replicate his Huddersfield Town form for the Socceroos.
Ange Postecoglou will almost definitely start Mooy in Saitama, but he is still searching for the 26-year-old's best position, given Australia's embarrassment of midfield riches. Rogic edges him for the No. 10 role, but should Mooy operate just behind him, or even deeper where he has sometimes appeared during his career?
Group B of World Cup qualifying is incredibly tight with two matchdays to come. With only the top two nations from the group given automatic entry to the World Cup finals, Japan are one point above Saudi Arabia and Australia.
If Japan fail to beat the Aussies on Aug. 31, they will have to travel to Jeddah and hope for an away victory against the Saudis on Sep. 5. The Socceroos have a potentially easier home match on the same night against Thailand in Melbourne.
Despite being a Premier League champion with Leicester in 2016, Okazaki has been used mostly off the bench by Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who's preferred to start with FC Koln forward Yuya Osako. With the Samurai Blue usually playing a lone striker, the former Kashima Antlers favourite suits the system better than Okazaki, whose best form has come as part of a more traditional 4-4-2 at Leicester.
With 50 goals in 109 caps in almost a decade with the national team, 31-year-old Okazaki is far more experienced than Osako, 27, who has played for Japan only 19 times, with six goals, since 2013.
By scoring early against Arsenal and Brighton to start the Premier League season, Okazaki hopes that he's done enough to convince Halilhodzic to start him against the Socceroos.
"Right now, I happen to be reacting faster than everyone to the ball, just the result of the work I've been putting in," Okazaki told Kyodo News.
"I have to show I've made progress, by getting behind the defence, scoring from crosses. I want to show what I'm capable of. I have to ride this momentum."
Unlike Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, Okazaki is not a glamorous player, with a blue-collar reputation in Japan, however much his achievements are respected. His fellow strikers Osako and Yuya Kubo, who plays with Gent in Belgium, are considered to be more technically gifted, while lacking Okazaki's physicality.
Mooy's performances -- including his man-of-the-match display in Saturday's 1-0 victory over Newcastle -- have earned the praise of Premier League legend Thierry Henry from the pundits couch on British television.
"We knew it was going to come from Aaron Mooy; thinking, magic, I like when a player thinks," Henry told Sky Sports.
"I like his interview at the end [post game]. He was almost embarrassed being man of the match.
"Always talking about the team. Always talking about 'we.' It's nice to see that, he does his talking on the field."
Early days, of course, but it is incredible that newly promoted Huddersfield are second on the table behind Manchester United, and one of only three Premier League sides with perfect records this season.
And Mooy will need to bring the same kind of inspirational form to the international stage to help Australia get something out of their tough trip to Japan.
Mooy wasn't part of the Socceroos' squad that took over Japan's mantle as Asian champions in 2015, but has progressed at a greater rate than any Australian player in the 31 months since.
For Australia to avoid relying on other results in the final matchday early next month, the ex-Melbourne City playmaker must impose himself in a greater way than he has in third round to date. He needs to work hard on both sides of the ball, and turn Australia's possession into clear-cut opportunities. Too often, there's been a lack of end product from Mooy's performances for Postecoglou's side.
Just over two weeks after their meeting at the Saitama Stadium 2002, Okazaki and Mooy will reunite in West Yorkshire on Sep. 16 when Huddersfield and Leicester do battle in the Premier League at the John Smith Stadium.
By then, we will know if Japan and Australia have booked their World Cup spots, or if either of them are required to go through the lottery of playoffs -- one within Asia, and the other against the fourth-placed CONCACAF nation -- to make it to Russia 2018.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.