Kaoru Mitoma injury update: Is Brighton star playing for Japan at Asian Cup and when will he return?

Brighton & Hove Albion avoided defeat at arch-rivals Crystal Palace on December 21 but lost a key player as Kaoru Mitoma became their latest star to suffer an injury.

The loss of Mitoma adds to an attacking absentee list for the Seagulls including the likes of on-loan Barcelona forward Ansu Fati, Paraguay prodigy Julio Enciso, and winger Solly March, who is expected to miss the rest of the 2023/24 season with a knee injury.

Japan international Mitoma had been set to feature for his country at the Asian Cup, which runs for almost a month across January and February, before his injury appeared to put that in doubt. However, he was called up to the Japan squad on January 1, much to the surprise of Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi.

Will the 26-year-old be available for the tournament? How many Premier League matches could he miss? The Sporting News has the latest on the situation.

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Kaoru Mitoma injury update: Latest on Japan star’s recovery

Speaking on December 28, Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi said he expected Mitoma to be out for between four and six weeks.

Four weeks from the date when Mitoma sustained the ankle injury, that would give him an earliest return date of January 18, 2024, ignoring any time needed to regain match fitness. Six weeks would mean an earliest return of February 1.

The hugely popular player had posted an update earlier in the week to his Instagram following of more than 1.4 million.

“It is frustrating to be out injured but I will come back stronger,” said Mitoma, accompanying his post with a photo of himself taking on a marker during the game at Palace.

The news means that ultra-consistent Mitoma is likely to miss more games than he did in the entirety of his first season in Brighton’s first-team squad in 2021/22, when he featured in all but five matches, including every fixture from mid-November.

Even by his almost ever-present standard of last season, Mitoma had a demanding start to 2023/24. He played 18 times for club and country during the opening three months of the campaign, completing 90 minutes in 12 of those games and at least 81 minutes in three of the others.

After Mitoma headed a late winner against Bournemouth in February, Albion manager De Zerbi said he would “never” substitute him because of the threat he poses throughout games.

De Zerbi has had to slightly revise that approach. He acknowledged two months later that Mitoma would need to adapt to the new experience of playing in domestic and European competition as Brighton closed in on qualifying for the UEFA Europa League this season, and their participation in Europe meant Brighton faced three games in eight days before the first international break of 2023/24.

Mitoma played in every minute of those matches, setting up Brighton’s second goal on his European away debut as the Seagulls recovered from two goals down to draw 2-2 at Marseille on October 5.

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The introduction of Mitoma at halftime when Bournemouth visited the Amex Stadium on September 24 proved a masterstroke, the substitute promptly scoring twice to seal a 3-1 win.

He was absent from the 3-2 victory at Nottingham Forest on November 25 but returned as a second-half substitute in the subsequent 3-2 defeat at Chelsea.

Has Kaoru Mitoma played in too many matches?

Mitoma left Selhurst Park on crutches with his ankle in a boot following Brighton’s final match before Christmas, which was also his fourth successive game without a goal involvement since his assist for Pascal Gross’ equaliser in the 2-1 win at home to Brentford on December 6.

Albion fans had hoped that the protective measure was only precautionary but De Zerbi’s assessment a week later confirmed it was bad news.

Kaoru Mitoma Brighton

(AFP/Jiji Press)

Depleted Brighton coped without Mitoma in style on December 28, establishing a 4-0 lead at home to Tottenham before Spurs scored two late goals in a game lit up by a long-range strike from fullback Pervis Estupinan on the Ecuador international’s return from injury.

Mitoma featured in nine successive Japan matches between the start of their memorable run to the Round of 16 at the 2022 FIFA World Cup and September 2023.

A purple patch of two goals and two assists in three games, followed by an appearance in their eye-catching 4-1 win away to Germany in September, proved the final international fixtures in which Mitoma would play in 2023.

Japan kept Mitoma in reserve for their subsequent win over Turkey. They initially named him in their squad for their games against Canada in Niigata and Tunisia in Hyogo in October, joining a squad almost entirely made up of stars who played in Europe, such as Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu and Wataru Endo, who joined Liverpool from Stuttgart in August.

MORE: Late Mitoma goal dumps Liverpool out of 2022/23 FA Cup

Nurnberg’s Kanji Okunuki then replaced him, with Japan’s official website listing the reason as Mitoma’s “physical condition”.

Mitoma also missed their November World Cup qualifying matches through injury, although 5-0 wins over Myanmar and Syria meant his creativity and eye for goal were not needed.

Will Kaoru Mitoma play for Japan at the Asian Cup?

Mitoma’s injury has certainly put his chances of taking part in the Asian Cup in doubt. It seems highly unlikely he will be available for the start of the 24-team tournament, but Japan could pin their hopes on not needing him until the later games.

The Asian Cup begins in Qatar on January 12. Japan’s first match is against Vietnam in Doha two days later, and the most optimistic interpretation of De Zerbi’s prediction could see Mitoma in contention when they play Iraq in their second group-stage match in Al Rayyan on January 19.

De Zerbi was certainly surprised when Mitoma was named in Japan’s final squad. 

“I’m really surprised because my medical staff told me Mitoma needs four, six weeks for his injury,” said the Brighton boss. “For me, it’s difficult to think he can play in the Asian Cup.

“But I am a fan of Mitoma, of all my players, so if they can play for their national team I am very happy and very proud.”

It is conceivable that he will not be risked for a group-stage campaign against far lower-ranked opponents.

Japan are 17th in FIFA’s standings, with Vietnam 94th and Iraq 63rd. It would be even more of a shock if the Samurai Blue were to be troubled by 146th-ranked Indonesia in their Group D closer.

Assuming Japan win their group, they would be likely to face relatively weak opponents again in the form of one of the best third-placed group-stage teams in the knockout phase on January 29 —three days shy of that six-week date from Mitoma’s initial injury.

A quarterfinal would be on February 2 or 3, when they could face 25th-ranked Australia, who are one of only three teams apart from Japan at the tournament inside the world top 55.

The other two of those nations are Iran (21st) and South Korea (23rd), who could await in a semifinal on February 6 or 7. The final is in Lusail on February 10, which will be more than seven weeks after Mitoma was injured.

MORE: Top 10 Premier League transfers for 2023

When will Kaoru Mitoma return for Brighton in the Premier League?

Unless he is unable to play for more than seven weeks or does not join his country, Mitoma’s return for Brighton will depend on how Japan fare at the Asian Cup.

If Japan’s final group-stage match on January 24 is their last at the tournament, Mitoma would likely return to contention for Brighton when they visit Luton Town in the Premier League on January 30, if he is fit.

A run beyond the Round of 16 would mean Mitoma would definitely miss the home game against arch-rivals Crystal Palace during the first week of February, and he will not be available for the trip to Tottenham the following week if they go beyond the quarterfinals.

The latest De Zerbi would expect to have Mitoma available again would be Brighton’s game at Sheffield United in mid-February, which is currently scheduled for eight days after the Asian Cup final.

By then, Mitoma could have missed a total of eight games, including the FA Cup third-round visit to Stoke City and a potential fourth-round match in the competition.

Brighton Amex Stadium general

Who is Kaoru Mitoma?

Mitoma joined Brighton from Japanese side Kawasaki Frontale in August 2021 with the Seagulls opting to send him on loan to Belgian club Union Saint-Gilloise for the 2021/22 campaign.

His time in Belgium saw an impressive return of seven league goals from 27 appearances on the back of scoring 30 in two campaigns in Japan.

Mitoma’s early career in Japan famously included a decision not to join a professional team at the age of 18, as he wanted to focus on his education and avoid entering into full-time football too early. He studied at the University of Tsukuba, renowned as a centre of sporting excellence, from 2016 to 2019.

Alongside playing for the university team, Mitoma’s sports-focused course included a thesis on the art of dribbling, which has been put into practice during his time at Brighton.

Kaoru Mitoma Brighton goals, assists, stats

Mitoma scored seven Premier League goals and made five assists in his debut campaign in 2022/23 – a record for goals by a Japanese player in the division, with one more than Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa previously finished on.

But his deeper statistics show just how effective he is in Brighton’s attack.

Based on data from the 2022/23 season, Mitoma was fifth for successful take-ons (58), second to Bukayo Saka for progressive carries (143) and only behind Mohamed Salah for carries into the penalty area (85).

That was followed up by a superb start to 2023/24 with three goals and three assists in Brighton’s first six league games, including a Premier League Goal of the Month award winner for a run and finish the length of the opposition half at Wolves.

Mitoma’s numbers have trailed off a little by his high standards, contributing two assists but failing to score in his last 15 appearances. His energetic performances and enduring attacking threat, however, have remained hugely important to Brighton.

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Kaoru Mitoma Brighton contract length, expire, wage, salary

Brighton announced in October 2023 that Mitoma had signed a new contract until June 2027. “It’s great news,” said De Zerbi. “Kaoru is our top player.”

Technical director David Weir called the contract extension “fantastic”. “Kaoru adapted to the Premier League last season and has quickly become one of our most important players,” Weir added.

“His success is also a reflection of the work of the departments that have played a role in his recruitment, helped him gain important experience on loan and ultimately become a big part of Roberto’s first team group.”

The winger signed a four-year contract until 2025 on his initial arrival at Brighton back in 2021. According to data from Spotrac, Mitoma’s weekly wage is now £80,000/$97,500 per week, or £4.2m/$5.1m per year.

Kaoru Mitoma of Brighton and Hove Albion

Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

Kaoru Mitoma transfer news, value

Part of Brighton’s plan is to sell Mitoma for at least £70m ($86.1m), according to sources cited by Football Insider, which has suggested that Manchester United and Chelsea have been watching on admiringly.

Brighton have frequently given improved long-term contracts to key players, such as Pascal Gross and Evan Ferguson, but have a policy of allowing stars to move on — albeit with some hard bargaining along the way — and are sure to receive interest in Mitoma if he has another successful season.

Defensive midfielder Moises Caicedo initially agitated for a move before signing a contract until 2027 in March 2023. The Ecuador sensation joined Chelsea five months later for a fee that could rise to a British-record £115m ($141m).

Caicedo’s age makes him more valuable than Mitoma but a price tag of £70m reflects the defence-splitting brilliance of the player Brighton signed for £2.5m ($3.1m) as a relative unknown from J1 League side Kawasaki Frontale in 2021.

Kaoru Mitoma

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Will Kaoru Mitoma leave Brighton in 2024?

Mitoma is said to be happy at Brighton but the chance to play Champions League football could be a tempting factor, with City boss Pep Guardiola expressing his enjoyment of his wing wizardry.

Manchester United are also rumoured to be one of the major sides interested in making a move for Mitoma.

The Red Devils are looking to offload Jadon Sancho amid the winger’s dispute with manager Erik ten Hag, while City were linked with Mitoma before signing Jeremy Doku in the summer.

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