(Reuters) - If Japan are going to make a first World Cup quarter-final they will require Keisuke Honda to be firing on all cylinders.
The bleach-blond playmaker is the central figure in coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s attacking plans with the Asian champions, who are competing at their fifth successive World Cup since their debut appearance in 1998, confident of improving on their last-16 exit by Paraguay four years ago.
Honda is one of the survivors of the 2010 campaign, when he played as the central striker and scored a long-range free kick to help the Blue Samurai beat Denmark 3-1 in their final group game to advance to the knockout stages for only the second time.
He also scored a penalty in the shootout defeat against Paraguay to further emphasise his set-piece skills in what was a strong tournament for both team and individual.
With the arrival of Italian Zaccheroni as coach, Honda was switched back to playing behind the main striker and given greater influence in matches, which the 27-year-old has enjoyed.
He was named most valuable player as Japan won a record fourth Asian Cup in January 2011 by beating Australia 1-0 in the final in Qatar.
The emergence of Shinji Kagawa in Germany with Borussia Dortmund gave Honda a creative foil and the two dovetailed brilliantly before Kagawa grew frustrated at being asked to play wide left.
Kagawa’s form resulted in a move to Manchester United, but Zaccheroni refused to budge on his insistence that Honda remained his central playmaker.
A calm and assured presence in possession, Honda’s ability to read the game and bring team mates into play are important attributes in a Japan team that has been known to get flustered when things do not go their way.
Honda is also an astute dribbler, a key commodity in the passing-orientated modern game, while he has quick feet and is a frequent user of the Cruyff turn.
“He is technically skilled. His game will broaden our offensive repertoire,” Massimiliano Allegri said after signing Honda for AC Milan in January before being replaced as coach.
Whether starting up front prior to Zaccheroni’s arrival or in the number 10 role under the Italian, Honda has consistently scored goals against top opposition.
He recorded strikes against Belgium, Netherlands, Ghana and Uruguay in friendly matches last year and also scored against Italy in the Confederations Cup.
He also struck a decisive stoppage-time penalty to grab the point they needed against Australia to become the first team to qualify for Brazil.
After four years in Russia with CSKA Moscow, he moved to Zaccheroni’s old club Milan in January and followed in the footsteps of ex-Japan midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata in playing in Serie A.
“Milan have been one of the world’s top clubs for a long time and it is a dream (for him) to have the No. 10 shirt,” Nakata told Kyodo of the move.
But Honda has struggled to make the same impact and has often been selected in a deeper position among the central midfield trio.
Zaccheroni, though, understands Honda’s talents and will be keen to see his man flourish back in the central attacking role in Brazil, which the player says “is in my DNA”.
Editing by Mark Meadows and Mike Collett