Japan’s talismanic forward, Keisuke Honda, is confident he can continue his fine run of form against Paraguay in the teams’ Round of 16 showdown in Tshwane/Pretoria on Tuesday.
The 24-year-old converted striker has already scored twice in Japan’s groundbreaking run in South Africa, establishing himself as a pivotal figure as Takeshi Okada’s side have reached the last 16 for the first time beyond home shores. With Japan now bidding to go one step further and reach the quarter-finals for the first time, the CSKA Moscow man sounded an optimistic note as he told we “Paraguay are a strong team but I am confident I can score and my team can win the game to progress.”
Honda struck a spectacular free-kick in the 3-1 victory over Denmark that secured Japan’s last-16 berth. In thundering the ball past Thomas Sorensen from 30 yards, he enhanced a reputation as a dead-ball specialist, having earlier this year fired CSKA into the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals with a long-range effort against Sevilla. On his set-piece prowess, he said: “I particularly hope I can score for Japan with my free-kicks because I put a lot of effort into practising them. I have a powerful shot and so usually take the long-distance free-kicks and leave [Yasuhito] Endo to handle the rest.”
While Endo also converted a free-kick against the Danes as Japan scored three in a FIFA World Cup game for the first time, it is Honda who is taking the majority of the plaudits for Japan’s progress, given he also struck the solitary goal in the opening Group E win over Cameroon. Normally deployed as a midfielder, he was pushed up front as Japan’s lone striker as Okada gambled on a solution to the team’s lack of firepower in the run-up to the finals, when they hit only one goal in four friendly games.
And the new-found lethal weapon showed he can also provide a killer pass when he set up Shinji Okazaki for the late third against Denmark that made sure of second place in the group. “I want to score more goals but the most important thing is that the team get the win. I will do my best to help us achieve our goals and I really don’t care if I score or not so long as we win,” said Honda, speaking after training on the eve of the Paraguay game.
The South Americans will pose a difficult test given they topped Group F, shrugging off their old image as an ultra-defensive side in the process. Honda believes Japan are right to be wary of opponents also seeking a first quarter-final place. “They are swift in pressing forward and are dangerous in switching between defence and attack so we need to play a little back. We’ll have to work harder than them to limit their chances.”
Honda’s view was echoed by coach Okada, who urged his players to “go out there and give their all”. He added: “Paraguay are strong opponents but they are not impossible to defeat. We do have a chance if we can give 100 per cent of our abilities. I hope our players play are at their best both physically and mentally tomorrow to produce the best possible performance.”