SOROCABA, Brazil (AP) — One is a bleach blond dynamo who combines street muscle with a creative touch. The other is a featherweight who darts in and out of impossible spaces wearing a mischievous grin.
Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa are Japan’s biggest stars — and the heart of their team’s attack.
Both are coming off disappointing seasons with their European clubs, Honda at AC Milan and Kagawa at Manchester United. Honda fell far below the hype that accompanied him when he left CSKA Moscow in January to be Milan’s new No. 10. Kagawa had a season of frustration at Old Trafford as he struggled to get playing time under new manager David Moyes.
That could be a worry for Japan as the players prepare for the World Cup, hoping to make the knockout stages. It could also be an advantage: Low expectations, fresh legs and, above all, something to prove may be a winning formula for this duo in Brazil.
“The important stuff starts from now,” Kagawa told reporters after Japan’s first training session in Sorocaba, Brazil on Sunday. “All my body is thinking about is the first game.”
If Honda and Kagawa find their form at the World Cup, they will cause trouble for their opponents.
Both are creative players who have an almost clairvoyant understanding of one another. The pinpoint passing and flowing attacks that have become the signature of Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s Japan are orchestrated by these two complementary talents.
“Honda is so physical and dynamic,” said Japan-based football writer Andrew McKirdy. “And players like Kagawa who are very nimble and sharp . can profit from feeding off Honda’s movements.”
The players’ struggles this season were not entirely of their own making.
Honda arrived at a Milan in turmoil. The one-time formidable champions were languishing in the middle of the Serie A table. Adding to the challenge of adjusting to a new league in mid-season, Milan sacked manager Massimiliano Allegri the day Honda made his Italian league debut.
New coach Clarence Seedorf, who was sacked by Milan on Monday, played Honda on the side, an unnatural position for a player who thrives in the central midfield position.
Kagawa also was shunted to the side whenever Moyes chose to play him. He showed some of the touches of class that made him a star at his former club Borussia Dortmund, where he won the Bundesliga twice. But he never won the respect of Moyes, whose troubled stewardship of Manchester United after the departure of Alex Ferguson created a difficult environment in which to make an impact.
Kagawa weighed up the pressures of playing for a top Premier League team with representing Japan after training on Monday.
“For Japan, you bear the expectations of the country, so it’s a different kind of pressure,” Kagawa said. “On a day to day level at Manchester United, they’re always demanding results and you’re competing with lots of players.”
The players also have personalities that complement one another. Kagawa brings a touch of mischief to the pitch and off of it — making him a popular presence in the changing room.
At a Christmas party for United, Kagawa had his teammates in stitches by cranking up the music and dancing Gangnam Style.
Honda exudes a certain arrogance in a nation that prizes humility, yet he seems to be an inspiration to his fellow Japanese players.
Days after Goldman Sachs gave Japan exactly “zero percent” chance of winning the World Cup, Honda told Japanese media that the Blue Samurai could go all the way.
That’s almost certainly a day-dream.
But Japan does have the potential to pull off one or two surprises, and has every chance of emerging from a Group C that also features Colombia, Ivory Coast and Greece.
Much will depend, though, on whether this Honda can find his form and become his team’s Ferrari.
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