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Thursday, March 25, 2010

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Blond ambition: Keisuke Honda has made a huge impact since joining CSKA Moscow at the start of the year and could hold the key to Japan's World Cup chances. AP PHOTO

SOCCER SCENE

Honda breathes life into Japan's World Cup aspirations


When Keisuke Honda arrived at Narita airport late last month for Japan's Asian Cup qualifier against Bahrain, he insisted he was "no savior" for a national team that had seriously lost its way. But with every impressive performance he gives, the 23-year-old is finding it harder to get people to listen.

Andrew McKirdy

Honda has emerged as one of the hottest talents in the European game, making such a blistering start to life at his new club CSKA Moscow that talk has already switched to where he will move next.

The midfielder was unfazed by making his debut in CSKA's Champions League second-round, first-leg match against Sevilla, and followed that up by terrorizing Rubin Kazan with a battery of booming free kicks in the Russian Super Cup.

Honda then marked his appearance in the league opener against Amkar Perm by scoring a last-minute winner, before really writing his name up in lights with a long-range free kick to settle CSKA's tie with Sevilla and send the former army club into the quarterfinals for the first time.

If that wasn't enough, he also found time to score in Japan's 2-0 win over Bahrain. If the player didn't think of himself as a redeemer, it must certainly have crossed his manager's mind that night.

Takeshi Okada was under huge pressure to deliver an uplifting performance after Japan finished third at the East Asian Football Championship in February, and Honda's drive, invention and audacity instantly breathed new life into a team that had looked so stale and predictable less than a month before.

Okada's reputation had been bruised by the East Asian debacle, but his deployment of Honda just behind main striker Shinji Okazaki was both a surprise and a success. Until then it was generally assumed that Honda was competing with national team stalwart Shunsuke Nakamura for a place in wide midfield, but the Bahrain game highlighted just how different and compatible the two players really are.

Nakamura's vision and accuracy complemented Honda's energy and directness perfectly, giving the team greater variety and keeping the opposition guessing. With both players hitting form for their clubs heading into the spring, suddenly Japan's chances of a respectable World Cup showing are back on.

Nakamura looks to be refinding himself at Yokohama F. Marinos after a chastening time at Espanyol, while Honda can expect to go from strength to strength at CSKA. Honda's reward for eliminating Sevilla is a plum tie against Jose Mourinho's Internazionale, and the improved standard of the Russian League will also keep his edge sharp in the months leading up to the World Cup.

It is a fitting reward for a player who has worked hard since leaving Nagoya Grampus in 2008. Honda's decision to make Dutch minnows VVV-Venlo his first stop in Europe was a brave choice, and he has hardly taken the easy option by moving to Moscow either.

It says much about the character of a player whose importance to the national team has rocketed in the last few months. Fulfilling Okada's semifinal prophecy might be a miracle too far, but Japan's best chance of World Cup salvation lies with Honda.



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