AC Milan's most recent loss to Atalanta leaves their hopes of European qualification in serious trouble, as they will only be able to reach the Europa League with the help of Parma, assuming Milan take care of business against Sassuolo.
The merits of the Europa League have been debated endlessly—Thursday matches, trips across Europe, extra matches for a tournament Milan is unlikely to take extremely seriously—yet failure to reach the tournament would represent failure for Clarence Seedorf's men.
Ever since Seedorf took over as manager in January, the only realistic target was the Europa League. Champions League qualification proved to be well beyond the reach of this Milan side.
It is likely that failure to finish in the top six will lead to increased calls for Seedorf's head as manager. Indeed, it seems as though CEO Adriano Galliani and President Silvio Berlusconi have set their sights on other targets for next season.
Recent comments by the duo (or lack thereof) indicate a lack of faith in Seedorf, which seems extremely unfair given the progress made by many players under Seedorf.
Players like Adil Rami and Adel Taarabt have become regulars since their arrivals in January, but one player who has fizzled under Seedorf has been Keisuke Honda.
The Japanese playmaker arrived after a lengthy set of negotiations with former club CSKA Moscow went sour. His contract expired, and he arrived in Milan without a transfer fee in what was seen as a huge coup for the Rossoneri at the time.
His Milan career started off brightly enough with a goal against Spezia in mid-January. Of course, that was a Coppa Italia match against a lower-division side, yet it was seen as a sign of things to come from Honda.
Under Seedorf's favored 4-2-3-1 formation, it appeared that the central attacking midfield position would be an ideal fit for Honda—it is essentially the position he plays for the Japanese national side.
However, Seedorf deployed Honda on the right wing for the majority of his games, to often underwhelming results.
For a player whose calling card is his creativity on the field, Honda played far too peripheral a role far too often. At a club like Milan, where results are expected instantly, this was simply unacceptable, and his adaptation to Italian football has been more difficult than initially anticipated.
Regardless, he had been given a pass largely due to the fact that the move from Russian football to Serie A is such a drastic shift in not only climate and scheduling but also in footballing culture.
Against Atalanta, he was finally deployed in the trequartista role in Seedorf's 4-1-2-1-2, behind Mario Balotelli and Kaka.
Suffice to say, his performance was highly underwhelming, with Seedorf singling him out for criticism after the game.
At this stage, the honeymoon phase is over for Honda, and the reality for Milan is that they cannot continue to field him if he shows no tangible signs of progress moving forward.
With Kaka thriving back in Italy, Stephan El Shaarawy finally healthy and Taarabt excelling since his arrival, there no longer appears to be a starting spot for Honda heading into next season.
Of course, this could be subject to change should Seedorf be replaced, and Milan will need backup attacking-minded players, yet it is undoubtedly disappointing to all involved that Honda is no longer expected to contribute in a meaningful fashion for Milan.
The hope remains that Honda finds his niche after the World Cup and with a pre-season, yet he is not viewed as a savior of the club as so many Italian newspapers breathlessly exclaimed upon his arrival. As such, it is in the best interest of all parties to temper expectations moving forward.
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