Honda vs. Kagawa
As befitting a three-day weekend occasioned by the ‘Health and Sports Day’ holiday next Monday, Friday’s friendly match between Japan and Argentina in Saitama will serve as the curtain-raiser to a mammoth few days of action within the Japanese sporting calendar. Saturday sees both the close of the regular season and the start of the play-offs in what, for now, probably remains this country’s most popular team sport; with Seibu Lions opening their best-of-three Climax Series tie with Lotte Marines in Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League hours before the parallel Central League completes the last of its rain-delayed fixtures. Attention (both domestic and global) will then shift to Suzuka Circuit in Mie Prefecture for the 16th round of the Formula One World Championship, before Japanese eyes return to the baseball and finally – once the minor hurdle of the first day back at work has been overcome – to the Blue Samurai’s trip to fierce local rivals South Korea on Tuesday.
Though it remains hard for many to draw a line under a successful World Cup that still feels like yesterday, the pair of international football matches at the outer extremes of this extended weekend’s symmetry should properly jumpstart the national team into its post-South Africa era. Following the state of limbo that persisted throughout last month’s friendlies with Paraguay and Guatemala under the caretaker charge of Hiromi Hara, these two fixtures represent both the first for new manager Alberto Zaccheroni and the last before Japan jet off to Qatar for the Asian Cup in January. Tactically, the Italian must decide whether to respect the strength of the opposition with a 4-3-3 (or 4-1-2-2-1) similar to that latterly employed by Takeshi Okada, or to boldly test the limits of his newly-acquainted charges in the 4-2-3-1 that looks likely to be his system of choice against most continental sides in the next three years. Whichever way he goes, however, Zaccheroni will also be forced to serve as adjudicator over a fascinating battle for supremacy that has suddenly emerged over the past eight weeks.
When long-time key man Shunsuke Nakamura stepped out of his Celtic comfort zone at the age of 31 to receive a rude awakening at Espanyol, Keisuke Honda didn’t so much seize the initiative as brutally beat the last breaths out of his sempai’s Japan career with it. 16 goals in a promotion-winning campaign with VVV Venlo were immediately followed by a first international strike against Chile in May 2009, six more goals in the Dutch top flight, and a sensible move up to a CSKA Moscow side offering first-team football in the Champions League. A couple more spectacular free kicks (against Anzhi Makhachkala and Sevilla) and an assured showing against Internazionale later, few remained unconvinced that the confident Osakan should be the driving force around which the World Cup eleven were built. Even then, it was still remarkable just how well he thrived on the challenge – bringing not only crucial goals but excellent all-round play in an unfamiliar role as a Wilsonian ‘false nine’.
In doing so, however, Honda’s ever ongoing quest for self-improvement seems to have hit a plateau. Despite precious little opportunity for rest over the preceding 12 months, the CSKA number seven flew straight back to Moscow after the World Cup to resume the Russian domestic season with a cup derby against Torpedo. He will stay for the remainder of the year to try and help his team win the title – CSKA are currently third, albeit fully eight points behind unbeaten leaders Zenit St. Petersburg – but it is clearly apparent that his feet are growing itchier for a big-league challenge by the day. Whether through form, fitness, or coach Leonid Slutsky’s recent tendency to force him back into defensive midfield, Honda is now without a goal in 15 matches. Worse still, his status as the headline-maker among Japanese players in Europe has suddenly been usurped.
The impact made by Shinji Kagawa since transferring to Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund is surely only enhanced by his local reputation as ‘that bloke who was playing in the Japanese second division six months ago’. But even to those of us around to witness him prove – with 50 goals in two-and-a-third seasons from midfield – that he was always destined for greater things, the 21-year-old’s progress has been astonishing. After the disappointment of only travelling to South Africa as 24th man, Kagawa settled into Germany immediately with a brace against FK Qarabağ in the Europa League, before returning to Japan to score the only goal against Paraguay. He then followed this up with another strike on his home league debut against Wolfsburg, two in the Ruhr derby at Atsuto Uchida’s Schalke 04, and yet another a week later at St. Pauli. While much of his success at Cerezo Osaka came from the left of the attack, Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp has entrusted him with a central role behind the main striker. Like Honda, Kagawa has made little secret of his desire to make the position his own.
The competition can only be good for the national team. With Takayuki Morimoto struggling to get games at Catania, Honda may well resume his World Cup role this weekend with Kagawa on the left, but the cherished central berth remains up for grabs if Zaccheroni opts to field them both behind a specialist forward. In an ideal world, there will be a happy ending for everyone. Instilling the attacking fluidity that characterises the best exponents of the modern 4-2-3-1 requires time and patience, but once successful, would allow both of Japan’s new stars to shine ever more brightly.
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