Sota Kitano: Japan's teenage sensation blossoming like Kagawa and Minamino

Sota Kitano NXGN GFXGOAL

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Cerezo Osaka are nicknamed the Cherry Blossoms, their pink home kits designed to replicate the colours of the trees that adorn the city.

But it is not just the flowers that regularly come into bloom around the Yanmar Stadium Nagai.

Cerezo's reputation for producing talented footballers, particularly those who thrive in the final third, is almost unmatched within Japan.

That is a reputation well earned for the club that developed both Shinji Kagawa and Takumi Minamino before they went on to star in Europe, and now they have another potential star making his way in the game.

Attacking midfielder Sota Kitano has made a huge impact in 2022, and the year is only just over six months old.

In February, he became the third-youngest player to sign a professional contract at Cerezo, with only Kagawa and fellow international Yoichiro Kakitani putting pen to paper on a deal with less life experience behind them.

Less than a week later, Kitano celebrated by scoring his first senior goal, becoming the youngest player to ever find the net for Cerezo in the process.

Kitano's winning goal against Kashima Antlers in the J. League Cup, coming almost six months before his 18th birthday, saw him break a record previously held by Minamino, and the comparisons between the teenager, the ex-Liverpool forward and former Man Utd midfielder Kagawa extend past just their first clubs.

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Kitano's greatest strength is his ability to break the lines with both his dribbling and passing, with his team-mates having quickly fallen in love with him given the frequency with which he creates chances.

"He has a talent that is not inferior to that of Shinji's." Akio Kogiku, who coached Kagawa during his time in the Cerezo academy, said recently, and Kitano has continued to show that for club and country.

He has scored three goals in his first 16 senior appearances, and shone for Japan Under-20s at the recent Toulon Tournament, netting the winner in their opening win over Algeria.

There have been questions asked of his stamina and work off the ball in defensive transitions, but there is no doubt that he is learning to improve upon those weaknesses.

"His defending has really improved," commented JFA technical vice-chairman, Masakuni Yamamoto, said. "I was surprised to see how much he had changed after all these years."

And so if Kitano can continue to work on those areas of his game that require attention while shining in the final third, then following Kagawa and Minamino to Europe will become inevitable.

A new Japanese footballer to get the pulses racing is yet again blooming in Osaka.