• Kyodo


Two-time World Cup star Keisuke Honda welcomes the competition from Japan teammate Yuya Kubo, vowing to recapture his place on the national team as he searches for a solution to his severe lack of playing time with AC Milan.

Kubo again was Vahid Halilhodzic’s preferred choice on the right wing in Thursday’s World Cup qualifier against the United Arab Emirates and came through, scoring Japan’s first goal and assisting the second during a 2-0 victory at Al Ain in winning his third cap.

Honda was relegated to bench duty, coming on for Kubo with 12 minutes left to see out the win. It was just Honda’s second appearance of 2017 for club or country; in his only other game this year, he played one minute of injury time for Milan in an Italian Cup match in January.

Yet Honda, whose three World Cup goals are the most by any Japanese player, is not close to sulking.

Speaking after a training session Saturday, the striker, who turns 31 in June, said he appreciates what the Belgian-based Kubo has brought to the team, and is determined almost to the point of certainty that he will eventually reclaim his spot in Japan’s lineup.

Japan hosts Thailand, which is last in Group B, on Tuesday at Saitama Stadium.

“I’m happy about it, and it’s not because I don’t feel a sense of urgency,” Honda said of the 23-year-old Kubo’s ascent. “This is what football is about, there’s nothing weird about it. This is just about me having lost my place in the first team here and back in Milan — which hasn’t happened before.

“But it happens, and says how competitive things are on the national team now. If I come and win the job back, it’ll make us even better.”

Honda puts his recent second-fiddle role down to simply not playing enough for Milan.

Halilhodzic has repeatedly urged him to find a club where he can get regular minutes. Honda has been linked with moves to Major League Soccer and China, but it remains to be seen where he will land before Japan’s World Cup qualifier on June 13 away to Iraq.

“A huge reason for my situation with the national team is the fact that I’m not playing for my club,” Honda said. “I think everyone wants to know how I’ll play if I set foot on the pitch right now.

“That’s what it comes down to. If I can show that I can still play, that I can score, then people will have an idea of what I can do and the opportunities will increase for me.”

“I’m having a blast,” he continued. “Situations like the one I’m in put me to the test. It forces me to think how I can improve myself, and I get great joy in overcoming that and seeing everyone happy.

“I’m enjoying this. I know what I have to do to get through all of this, but I won’t go into it because it’ll take way too long to explain everything.”

Thailand has just one point from the first six games and its chances of qualifying for Russia in 2018 are all but over.

An easy three points will be expected of Japan, but Honda said the Thais are better than the table shows, urging his team not to let up despite the win over the UAE.

“It’s a dangerous sign. We need to sharpen up and go into the game thinking it will be a more difficult game than we think,” Honda said. “We need to stick to the basics, like opting for the easy pass and not doing anything fancy like trying to take it past a bunch of people. Thailand can play, full stop.

“They’ll sit back and the way we play now, we’re probably better when opponents take the game to us. I think it will be tough because we won’t have opportunities to counterattack them.”

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