Fifa Club World Cup: Keisuke Honda purrs for Pachuca and keeps 'Rabbit' on his toes
Japanese midfielder made surprise switch to Mexican club from AC Milan and along with evergreen goalkeeper Oscar Perez is in line to face Wydad Casablanca in quarter-finals on Saturday
It was a signing that made quite a splash in Mexican football. To the centre of the country had come a genuine global star, still at a peak age, and a guaranteed magnet for coverage from across the Pacific Ocean.
Keisuke Honda, the Japan international who Pachuca signed after his stint with AC Milan came to an end in the summer, has so far sprinkled enough stardust to leave Pachuca happy with their coup.
He has also kept "the Rabbit" on his toes. Oscar Perez, alias "El Conejo" – the Rabbit – is the Peter Pan of Mexican football, a goalkeeper who will next week celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first of his 57 caps for his country and who in February turn 45.
Perez’s training drills have taken on a new dimension now that Honda is a teammate. It’s the direct free kicks that especially stimulate reflexes of this granddad of glovemen. Honda is one of the game’s most diligent students of how to bend, dip, curl or sometimes blast a dead ball over or around a defensive wall with his accomplished left foot.
Honda’s debut for the club who have put him at the very top of earners in Mexican football was delayed by muscle problems and by the time he was fit enough to make his bow in late August, Pachuca had slipped to mid-table.
He scored on his first appearance and there have been another five goals from 11 starts since; none yet from a direct free kick, though he has come close. The Honda who Pachuca have enjoyed most has been the clever dribbler, sharp and incisive on the counter-attack, composed in his finishing.
Pachuca’s manager, Diego Alonso, has praised Honda’s industry. “We’ve seen him work hard with the defensive part of his game,” Alonso said, “and give us a lot with his pressing. He’s earned high marks so far though I think there’s more to come from him.”
There may not be that much more to come from Perez, who suggested that the Club World Cup - which the Concacaf champions enter at the quarter-final stage with Saturday’s meeting with Wydad Casablanca (WAC) - might be the moment to set a date on his retirement from top-level competition. Simply to be there is a feather in his cap, a tribute to his endurance. Perez has played in two World Cups for Mexico, in 2002 and 2010, and was part of the Mexico squad who went to the 1998 tournament.
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His longevity makes him look like a throwback to another era. So do his dimensions. Perez is no giant, and a height of barely 5 ft 8 ins would be considered an insurmountable disadvantage in the data-driven scouting and development environment of the modern game; Perez encountered scepticism about whether he had a long enough reach for goalkeeping in his teens. What he countered with was his out-of-the-ordinary spring in his thighs.
Hence the nickname. This Rabbit can really leap.
He is the go-to man in the dressing-room and senior in years even to his boss. Diego Alonso, 42, was a Uruguay international centre-forward and, though not always a prolific scorer, a good enough player to have been part of the Valencia who reached the final of the Uefa Champions League in 2001, after which he moved to Atletico Madrid to partner a young Fernando Torres in attack and contribute 22 goals to Atletico’s promotion back to the top flight of Spanish football.
He worked with some shrewd managers – Hector Cuper, at Valencia; Luis Aragones, successful guide to the Spain national team, while at Atletico; and, while playing for Malaga, Juande Ramos, later of Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid.
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His task over the coming four days is to outperform his predecessors. Alonso led Pachuca to the club’s fifth Concacaf Champions League title in April, and in four previous expeditions to the Club World Cup, the club’s best placing has been fourth, in 2008, when they lost their semi-final to Japan’s Gamba Osaka.
Their precedents against other champions of Africa - as WAC are - are ominous. Pachuca lost in the quarters to Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel in 2007, and, on their previous trip to UAE, to TP Mazembe in 2010.
“We have shown we can be a good tournament side,” says Alonso, “but we also see that WAC concede very few goals. That’s our focus, but our overall aim is making the final.”
Updated: December 8, 2017 05:58 PM