Celtic FC have been waiting for a new hero since Henrik Larsson left in 2004 and, in Shunsuke Nakamura, the Scottish champions appear to have found that man.
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A good week has just got better for Celtic FC supporters with confirmation that Shunsuke Nakamura is ready to commit himself to the Glasgow club for another season. The Parkhead faithful have been waiting for a new hero since Henrik Larsson departed for FC Barcelona in 2004, and the Japan playmaker secured his place in their hearts last Sunday when his injury-time free-kick clinched the Scottish Premier League title in a 2-1 win at Kilmarnock FC.
Nakamura's dramatic intervention in the third minute of added time prompted manager Gordon Strachan to acclaim him "a genius at work" and a few hours later the 28-year-old rounded off a perfect day when his peers crowned him the Scottish Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year. He would have been forgiven for blowing the froth off a few beers but having revealed that alcohol makes him sick, Nakamura eschewed traditional celebrations and went home instead where his wife and two-year-old son were waiting with a specially baked cake.
It is the kind of dedication that has earned Nakamura a second consecutive SPL championship, making him the most successful Japanese footballer to ply his trade abroad. Viewed as a luxury when he arrived from Reggina Calcio for a fee of around €2m in summer 2005, Nakamura has confounded the critics who thought he would struggle to cope with the physical nature of the Scottish game. While he will never be the greatest tackler, Nakamura's bravery and composure on the ball, added to his prodigious ability from set-pieces, makes him indispensable in Strachan's eyes.
"I have played with Bryan Robson, Kenny Dalglish and Norman Whiteside who had strength Naka doesn't have," said the former Manchester United FC, Leeds United AFC and Scotland midfielder. "Yet for a sublime touch and vision, there has been none better in my career." That touch was evident in this season's UEFA Champions League when Nakamura was the difference between Celtic and Manchester United in their group stage encounter at Celtic Park in November. With nine minutes remaining, and the match poised at 0-0, the Japanese star's 30-metre free-kick sailed past Edwin van der Sar into the top corner, ensuring Celtic's progress to the last 16 for the first time.
The chance to play in Europe's élite competition was one of the reasons Nakamura joined Celtic and, despite this week's success, it is clear that the victory over United takes pride of place in his list of seasonal highlights. "Manchester United – beating them at Parkhead," Nakamura said without hesitation when asked for his favourite memory of the campaign. "I know I will always look back on my title goal as a special one, but the abiding memory will be beating United and scoring the winner."
The worry for Celtic is that their prized asset, who has helped the club break into the lucrative Japanese market where they are the third-best known Scottish brand after whisky and Sir Sean Connery, might be tempted away by a lucrative offer this summer. In the past Nakamura, who is under contract until 2009, has hankered for a move to Spain, but for now this star from the east appears content in the East End of Glasgow. "I will definitely be at Celtic Park next season, hopefully to lift my third championship in a row," he said. "It has been a good season, playing well in the Champions League and we've won the league again. Now our aim is to win the Scottish Cup." This is one player who can have his cake and eat it.