FSV Mainz 05 will be spearheaded by their Asian attacking trio when they attempt to stop Bayern Munich’s relentless march to the Bundesliga title today.
Japan striker Shinji Okazaki is their top scorer with 11 goals in 24 league games, which has lifted Mainz to fifth and among the European places for next season.
Okazaki plays in front of a diamond midfield formation, headed by attacking midfielder Koo Ja-cheol, whose fellow South Korea international Park Joo-ho is on the left wing.
The 27-year-old Okazaki is just one short of Shinji Kagawa’s record for a Japanese player of 13 goals in a Bundesliga season, set before Kagawa left Borussia Dortmund to join Manchester United in 2012.
Okazaki netted twice in Mainz’s stunning comeback at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim on Saturday last week, which they won 4-2 with three goals in eight second-half minutes.
Yet the Japan star admits Bayern, who could be confirmed league champions at Mainz if both rivals, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04, draw or lose, will be a step up.
“I’m not sure how, but we’ve managed to get ourselves up into fifth and hopefully we can build on this,” Okazaki said.
“But let in one against Bayern and it’s all over, so we’ll have to play much better than we did at Hoffenheim,” he added.
Okazaki has been a revelation for Mainz, spearheading the attack, rather than playing out wide as he did at his former club, VfB Stuttgart, since transferring in July last year.
He has scored twice in four league games and has benefited recently from Koo’s silky passing since the South Korea captain joined from VfL Wolfsburg in January.
Likewise, Park has prospered under Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel by switching from leftback at former club Basel to a spot on the left wing.
“Our Asians are awesome,” Tuchel said, praising the trio for their “selflessness, sacrifices for the team, enormous diligence, modesty and speed of action.”
“If they are all like that in Asia, I’d have to urgently become a national coach somewhere over there,” he added.
While Kagawa had a full-time translator during his seasons in Dortmund, Mainz’s budget means Tuchel speaks to Okazaki and Koo in German, but in English with Park.
“You don’t need to speak perfect German to understand what the coach means. At the end of the day, football terminology is all the same,” as Kagawa once put it.
Tuchel admits he has been particularly impressed with how Park and Koo have performed.
“He [Park] was simply thrown in at the deep end in the Bundesliga,” the coach said.
“Joo-ho is very, very valuable. He can play in the defensive midfield position, his versatility is a gift for me, because he opens up lots of possibilities,” he added.
Since his arrival, Koo has given Tuchel a new dynamic to the midfield with his box-to-box running and flexible interplay with frontmen Okazaki and Cameroon striker Eric Choupo-Moting.
Unbeaten in their past five games, Mainz are just three points off fourth place in the league, which carries a Champions League place, but Bayern present a huge test.
“We need to be brave and believe in a sensational win against Bayern Munich,” Tuchel said, with star-studded Bayern coming to Mainz looking for their 18th consecutive league win.