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Time to face up to reality with Nakamura’s star on the wane

by Andrew Mckirdy

As national team manager Takeshi Okada runs the rule over the year gone by, he will have to face up to an uncomfortable but unavoidable truth — 2009 has not been kind to Shunsuke Nakamura.

With six months to go until the World Cup, there could hardly be a worse time for Okada’s key man to go off the boil. But after a difficult start at a new club and a string of indifferent performances for his country, that is the reality both player and manager must address going into the new year.

Nakamura’s slide has been gradual rather than dramatic. He began the year in good form, and underlined his importance to the national team with a ferociously dominating display in a March World Cup qualifier against Bahrain.

With Japan struggling to make headway after a frustrating first half, Nakamura took control. The midfielder grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, demanding the ball all over the pitch, bringing his teammates into play and scoring the winner with a trademark free kick.

But that was the last time Japan saw Nakamura at his best. He looked tired and ineffective in the summer series of qualifiers, and even if that could be explained by another long season with Celtic, there has been little improvement since.

Age appears to be taking its toll on a 31-year-old who has often played through injuries, and at times Nakamura has looked like a one-man hand brake on a national team that relies on fast passing to break down opponents.

With the player now struggling to impose himself at Espanyol, Okada must seriously consider the possibility of Nakamura’s slump continuing into the World Cup.

Former national team manager Philippe Troussier offered his solution last week, urging Okada to bench his star man in order to stimulate competition for starting places and guard against complacency. The Frenchman’s antipathy toward Nakamura’s talents has long been established, but he does have a point.

Keisuke Honda has emerged as Nakamura’s heir apparent over the past year, but the VVV-Venlo midfielder has not really been given a full chance to show what he can do. Honda has blown hot and cold on the occasions he has been called on, and it may be that he is not ready to assume the mantle just yet.

But that cannot be said for certain until Okada gives him a genuine opportunity. A fit and on-form Nakamura still seems the best option, but it is the manager’s responsibility to prepare for every eventuality before the tournament begins.

Nakamura must also make some tough choices of his own in the new year. His move to Espanyol was fueled by a desire to play in a league he had long admired, but he must decide whether that is more important than being in peak condition for what will surely be his last World Cup.

A January return to the J. League would be a painful admission of his failure to cut it in La Liga, but it would at least guarantee him playing time. Of course Nakamura could still turn things around in Spain, and his success or failure can only be judged at the end of the season.

By that time, however, it might be too late for Japan’s World Cup hopes.