x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Honda is CSKA's driving force

The Japanese midfielder's use of the dead ball is one of the reasons for Russian optimism and could cause problems for Inter.

Keisuke Honda celebrates scoring against Sevilla in the second leg of their last-16 Champions League tie earlier this month.
Keisuke Honda celebrates scoring against Sevilla in the second leg of their last-16 Champions League tie earlier this month.

The thousands of Inter Milan fans who this evening weave through the city's bottlenecked avenues in the direction of San Siro aboard their Piaggio Vespas should be wary of a Honda. That is Keisuke Honda, to be precise, the Japanese midfielder whose addition to CSKA Moscow's squad during the last transfer window is one of the principal reasons for Russian optimism ahead of tonight's first leg of their Champions League quarter-final in Italy.

Russian teams are rare guests in the last eight of Europe's elite club competition. Asian footballers feature as seldom, and a Japanese participant is unprecedented. Signed from the Dutch club VVV Venlo in January, Honda's precise left foot and enterprising passing have been one of the discoveries of the new year. He scored and then created the goals that put CSKA past Sevilla in the previous round and arrives in Milan in good form after getting his name on the scoresheet in the Russian league at the weekend.

"Things have worked out very well, after what might have been a risky move for my career," said Honda of his step up from Holland's Eredivisie. CSKA, Uefa Cup winners five years ago, are the most exotic of the teams left in the Champions League. They have the youngest manager, the 38-year-old Leonid Slutsky, in a field where Laurent Blanc, at Bordeaux, and Pep Guardiola, at Barcelona, fly the flag for the initiates in an arena occupied by familiar veterans such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Louis van Gaal. Even Inter's Jose Mourinho, at 47, has been part of the European cup theatre for too long to call him its freshest young face.

Mourinho will have done his homework on Slutsky's pacy team, know that Honda's use of a dead ball is a menace, that on a good night the Japan international can dictate the tempo of a game, that, around him, there is willingness among the CSKA midfielders to shoot from distance and that they can be effective on the counter-attack. Mourinho would already have observed that the Russians have been able travellers, with away wins so far in Istanbul against Bestiktas in the group phase, in Andalucia, where they beat Sev-illa 2-1, and a draw at Old Trafford against Manchester United.

Slutsky, for his part, has revised well. He was in Rome last Saturday to watch Inter lose 2-1 in Serie A to Roma, their closest domestic challengers. From that, Mourinho may be relieved to be back in the environment of European football from where the most flattering light has been shone on his team in 2010. Victory in both legs over Chelsea in the previous round has propelled the Inter coach back into the realm of international speculation over his future - making him a plausible target for the Real Madrid job, perhaps the successor, post-Ferguson, at United - which is a realm he enjoys, even more so when the speculators do not draw attention to the fact that, around those wins over Chelsea, Inter have managed only two victories in their last eight games. They are not in form and they have Lucio and Thiago Motta absent through suspension tonight.

The Russians seem happy to play the underdog and flatter Inter's most prominent member of staff. "Inter already had a strong team, with plenty of trophies, and were already one of the very best in Europe," said Milos Krasic, the Serbian striker who has scored four goals so far in the competition. "With Mourinho they have started to play better football, too. As a head coach, I put him as one of the very best in the world.

"You can tell the players listen hard to him and play to their limits for him. They fight for every ball and play much more as a unit." CSKA, added Krasic, will be happy to look for chances on the break, knowing that Inter face a cold, and probably a raucous reception in the return leg in Russia next week. @Email:sports@thenational.ae Inter v CSKA, 10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +5