Club World Cup perfect for Keisuke Honda to prove Japan worth

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan believes the upcoming FIFA Club World Cup is a perfect opportunity for Keisuke Honda to prove he deserves to play at Russia 2018 next summer.

When the 2017 FIFA Club World Cup gets underway on Wednesday, there will be 22 Japanese players in United Arab Emirates bidding for international club glory.

A majority of them – 20 to be exact – will be flying the flag for both Japan and Asia with Urawa Red Diamonds, who qualified as the continent’s representatives after recently winning the AFC Champions League.

But, while national pride is at stake, it is quite likely that the one man that the whole of Japan would be watching with most interest is the one that happens to be representing North, Central America and the Caribbean for the next week or so.

Because the player in question happens to be Keisuke Honda, who has been plying his trade with CONCACAF champions Pachuca since July. And how he performs in the Emirati limelight could go a long way in determining whether Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic hands him a ticket to Russia next summer for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

(For the curious, the 22nd Japanese player at the tournament is Auckland City defender Takuya Iwata.)

When Honda, along with Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, were left out by Halilhodzic for recent glamour friendlies against Brazil and Belgium, the immediate explanation was they had simply been rested.

“Rested”. For matches against two of the world’s best teams that would have been excellent preparation for a World Cup in seven months. Played in Europe. With the EAFF E-1 Football Championship coming up, which would give Halilhodzic an even better opportunity to test his domestic-based players.

To be fair, trying to guess the real reason behind Halilhodzic omitting three key players for two massive clashes is exactly that: guesswork. And it’s now a thing of the past.

So let’s focus on the future. Does the future of the Samurai Blue include one Keisuke Honda?

Long-term future? No. But in terms of “next-seven-months” future? It certainly should.

For the Liga MX, while obviously not at the level of Italy’s Serie A, is no slouch of a league either. Bearing in mind that the last 12 winners of the CONCACAF Champions League hail from that very competition, and that Mexico qualified for the World Cup as the top team in their confederation, five points ahead of second-placed Costa Rica.

And since his move to Estadio Hidalgo, Honda has not resembled a man whose powers are on the wane.

Including his debut strike in a 4-1 win over Veracruz, the 31-year-old has notched six goals in 16 games, with his trademark hard running, intelligent movement and deadly finishing on full display.

There really should not be any doubts that Honda is still fully capable of doing a job for Japan next summer. Especially given he is the type of player that can still produce a match-winning moment even if he goes quiet for 89 minutes.

Just in case there are any, however, the Club World Cup provides him with the perfect platform to prove his critics wrong with the world watching and tough opponents at every stage, just like it will be at Russia 2018.

Interestingly enough, Honda has reacted well to being snubbed in the past, when he was left out of the starting XI as the Samurai Blue beat Australia 2-0 in a crunch qualifier to seal their World Cup spot back in August.

“I have not been playing constantly at club level for a long time, so I have to nod [in agreement] and not being picked to play,” he said then, according to Kyodo News.

“Obviously there are people who think our services are not required anymore, but conversely I think that is a good thing.”

It is this same determination – the same kind often seen when he is embarking on one of those lung-bursting runs – that suggests Honda will not take no for an answer and be denied what is likely to be his World Cup swansong.

That’s not to say that a positive showing at the Club World Cup is the be-all and end-all; Honda will still have five months after that to continue to prove his worth to Halilhodzic.

Nonetheless, if Pachuca have it their way, they will defeat Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca and Brazilian giants Gremio to set up a dream final against European champions Real Madrid. And, if Honda has it his way, he will play a starring role throughout.

If that truly eventuates, then it would firmly put an end to all this unnecessary doubt on whether or not Keisuke Honda is among the names that the Japan Football Association will be booking tickets to Russia for.

He will be right on top of the list.