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Italian Serie A
 By John Duerden

Keisuke Honda not exactly living the dream at AC Milan

Keisuke Honda
Keisuke Honda has only seen 19 minutes of action for AC Milan this season.

Playing for AC Milan was all Keisuke Honda wanted when growing up in Japan in the 90s and being handed the No. 10 shirt was just even better.

With that individual entry on the bucket list ticked, the 30 year-old may reflect that had his timing, so good on the pitch, been a little better off it then Milan could have been magical in many more ways.

It is not just the time spent on the bench so far this Serie A season -- all but 19 of the 450 minutes Milan have played -- but the feeling that the Osaka-born star joined his boyhood club at least two years too late.

The early years of his career were textbook. A high-school talent earned an early move to J.League club Nagoya Grampus in 2004. After establishing himself as one of the brightest prospects in Asia, Honda was off to the Netherlands and VVV-Venlo in January 2008.

He became one of the last major Asian stars to see the Eredivisie as the ideal introduction to European football, following the likes of Park Ji-sung, Lee Young-pyo and compatriot Shinji Ono. Holland is a less common destination these days as young East Asian talents tend to head straight to Germany.

As educations go however, it was a good one. There was relegation, an impressive promotion season and then proof he could shine in the top tier. The Dutch club knew that they would not be able to keep "Emperor Keisuke" for too long.

By 2009, the then 23 year-old had been linked with lots of big clubs in big leagues: Arsenal, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus, to name just a few. After all, he was a talent from East Asia, already settled in Europe and on the cusp of becoming a big star.

Yet he chose CSKA Moscow, heading to Russia in January 2010. From being in Holland, just a Cruyff-turn away from the biggest and best leagues in the world, Honda headed to the eastern reaches of Europe. At the time, Russian football may have been going through something of a boom with a fine performance at the 2008 Euros and some of its clubs flexing muscles in the transfer market but it still seemed little more than a sideways move.

The initial bright spot was CSKA had already made their way to the second round of the UEFA Champions League. Honda took to it quickly with a goal against Sevilla that sent Moscow to the last eight and elimination at the hands of Inter Milan. Two years later, the team made it to the second round with Real Madrid ensuring that was as far as they got.

And the same seemed to be the case with Honda in Russia. Within a couple of years, transfer stories linking the player back to western Europe started to appear. Liverpool were said to be back in the chase with Juventus getting involved too. CSKA however had no desire or rush to sell their star, holding out for serious money. It was only when his contract entered its final year in 2013 that Milan made headway and even then, the Russians played hardball. In the end, Honda had to wait until his four-year contract had expired before he was able to head to Milan in January 2014.

"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," he said.

And fans in Japan and Asia were almost as pleased to see one of the continent's best joining one of the world's biggest.

The problem was that he arrived in Italy too late. He may have been 27 and approaching his peak but Milan were on the slide. One can only wonder what would have happened had he arrived in Italy straight from the Netherlands.

In 2011, the Rossoneri had won the Serie A and finished second and then third in subsequent seasons. Yet, Honda arrived in the middle of a campaign that was going to end in eighth, a lowest finish since 1998. The following year brought tenth.

The star had joined a giant of the game at a time when it was not playing or acting like one. Ironically, Honda played more Champions League games with CSKA than with Milan. It was not how it was meant to be. The reality wasn't quite matching the decade of dreams.

Last season, Honda started 14 games on the bench. He still got plenty of playing time but was sometimes out wide, far from the centre of the action. And while he finished the campaign as one of the Milan's better performers, his inaction so far this season is disappointing.

It is also not the kind of big-time European action that the Japan national team wants for one of its biggest players with crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers coming thick and fast.

It is no surprise rumours have surfaced of a possible move. Honda is 30 and being linked to Major League Soccer. China is also not out of the question and neither is a move back home.

The move to Milan has not been a disaster but has not matched the dream once held. Despite the other options, there is still time and talent however for another big European move.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.


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