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Honda’s moment arrives after long wait to join AC Milan

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Keisuke Honda has waited a long time to get his shot with one of Europe’s biggest clubs, but his patience should stand him in good stead as he begins life with Italian giants AC Milan this week.

Honda was set to be unveiled by the seven-time European champions on Wednesday after signing a contract with the club until June 2017, with the Rossoneri handing him the No. 10 shirt made famous by the likes of Ruud Gullit, Dejan Savicevic and Rui Costa despite having never played in any of Europe’s elite leagues.

At the age of 27, however, Honda has certainly served his apprenticeship. The attacking midfielder thrived in two years with modest Dutch club VVV-Venlo after leaving Nagoya Grampus in early 2008, and improved further after a move to CSKA Moscow in January 2010 brought a steady diet of Champions League appearances.

But a four-year contract with the wealthy Russians proved to be something of a set of golden handcuffs after Honda made a wider name for himself at the 2010 World Cup just months into the deal, and the player’s desire to move west repeatedly fell on deaf ears as CSKA refused to let the player leave on anything but their own terms.

Now that Honda has signed with Milan, none of that matters. Instead he can draw confidence from the fact that he is joining one of Europe’s blue-chip clubs as he enters the peak years of his career, with enough experience, know-how and physical ability to make a lasting impression on the San Siro crowd.

“First of all, he is technically skilled,” Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri told reporters on Sunday. “His game will broaden our offensive repertoire. Even with three men up front, he will be the trigger for our attack.

“We have been looking for a player who can fill that position. I’ve seen what he’s done for CSKA Moscow at the European level.”

Unfortunately for Honda, Milan is experiencing a turbulent 2013-14 season, with Allegri’s side currently 11th in the Serie A table. Progress to the last 16 of the Champions League will come as scant consolation for Honda given that he is ineligible for the rest of the campaign having already appeared for CSKA, and Milan’s domestic struggles look certain to preclude involvement in Europe next season, too.

But Honda did not make his move with simply the short-term in mind, and the Osaka native has everything it takes to make his time in Milan the defining period of his career.

The Rossoneri have enough quality in their squad — Mario Balotelli, Kaka, Stephan El Shaarawy — to render this season’s struggles no more than a blip, and Honda is capable of making a significant contribution.

“I have a lot to give and to offer the team,” Honda told Milan TV after landing in Italy last weekend. “I’ve been waiting for today for a long time and it’s a dream come true. Milan are a legendary club and I supported them as a child.”

The world has been waiting to find out if Honda is the real deal ever since he made his name at the World Cup in South Africa, and the intervening four years out of the spotlight in Russia means he has something to prove after belatedly arriving at soccer’s top table.

Now he is ready to show he belongs there.