It's now or never for AC Milan's Keisuke Honda
Keisuke Honda is something of an enigma -- as much Luke Skywalker as Han Solo. Cocky yet shy, cool yet wide-eyed, friendly yet guarded.
He talks to the press, properly talks, when there is something he wants to say but can be adept at avoiding the limelight or any question.
When he returned to Tokyo from Moscow in 2013, the press pack at Narita Airport was surprised to see a son, of whose existence they knew not, in tow. In a country where he can be seen on the sides of skyscrapers and on television screens advertising all manner of products, it was an impressive feat.
Talking of impressive feet conjures memories of his goal against Ivory Coast in the first Group D game at the World Cup. His sharp shot high into the Elephants' net seemed to be a delicious signal that Honda was in town and ready to follow up a very good World Cup in 2010 with a great one in 2014. And then, the momentum of the such a performance would carry him back to Italy ready to establish himself as a star of Serie A.
'Emperor Keisuke' has long been an AC Milan fan and when the opportunity came to join the Rossoneri at the end of 2013 after an interminable four-year spell with CSKA Moscow he jumped at it like Robin Van Persie latching on to a long ball against Spain. The Tokyo media followed suit with national broadcaster NHK devoting a full 12 minutes of the national morning news to his Italian debut.
In truth, the timing was not the best. This Milan was not the Milan he loved as a boy. Usually, when the five-time European champions win seven of their last nine league fixtures, you would expect a late charge for the title. Climbing to a mere eighth place finish showed how bad everything had been before. No Champions League and not even the Europa.
Coming into a big team is often difficult and Clarence Seedorf's 4-2-3-1 never really seemed to suit. Kaka had the central role that Honda prefers and on the right, it took him time to adjust the pace and greater intensity of the Italian game. His finishing, always inconsistent, was worse than usual, a fact oft-remarked upon by a media that had better things to say about his hard work and intelligence.
Honda showed flashes of his talent, enough for his fans to say that he had done the hard part and started to settle in a team that had serious issues and was in the middle of the worst season for many years. But it was also enough for those who feel he is somewhat overrated to confirm their belief that when it comes to his talent, it is not quite a case of 'Emperor Keisuke's new clothes' but that he does not quite have what it takes to be a top-class player.
His fans had little to cheer about in the summer on the biggest stage of all. Apart from that special Ivory Coast moment, Honda looked slow and short of ideas, though the passive tactics surprisingly chosen by coach Albert Zaccheroni did not help.
The attacker had been struggling for Samurai Blue form going into the tournament and so it continued. Gone were the flicks and the pass-move-groove of the previous three years. Gone was the inventive and intelligent fulcrum of the Japanese attack and instead there was a man who had lost his telepathy with the two Shinjis on other side of him, Kagawa and Okazaki. Japan and Honda never really got in to the World Cup and were soon heading home.
Four years on the fringe of Europe, albeit with a couple of Champions League campaigns, a largely underwhelming half season in one of the world's genuine big leagues and then a hugely disappointing time in Brazil, you don't need the player's vision to see that this coming campaign is a crucial one for Keisuke Honda.
Fortunately, the signs are encouraging even if a quick phone call with Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United would reveal that a good preseason (recent games, that is, the less said about the U.S. tour the better) doesn't necessarily equate to a good season start even if it is better to have than not.
Under new coach Filipo Inzaghi, Honda may still expect to be on the right, but in a 4-3-3 and he looks set to cut in more and get involved in the play to a greater degree than last season.
The departure of Mario Balotelli could help if, for nothing else, it means the Japanese gets to take more free-kicks. Add that exit to that of Kaka, and suddenly, Honda is now one of the bigger names at the club and has a good deal more responsibility to give the team a greater attacking threat. It is up to him to take the opportunity.
His performance in the recent 1-0 win over Juventus for the TIM Trophy on Aug. 24 was therefore encouraging. It was also perhaps his best in the red and black and in those 90 minutes, he matched last season's tally of a single goal. The sounds coming out of the club about their No. 10 are encouraging and even if there is a sense of the player being talked up ahead of the new campaign, that is only to be expected and not a problem.
If fans in Italy, Europe and the world are still not sure what to make of this enigmatic star, this is the season to make it simple for everyone. No ifs, buts or doubts. Honda needs a good season for his own sake as well as Milan and if the force is with him, it could be his best yet.