Chapter 11: The Will to Win, Halftime Talk
Sunday May 19, 201X
When Ricky last left the pitch after the warm-up around an hour ago, he recognized former schoolmate Mai Murasaki sitting alongside Mito, Taeko and the Lewis family, who were all wearing red shirts for the match. Already holding a deep grudge against Kakeru Aizawa, the sight of Mai wearing her Red Devils hoodie and supporting Kakeru got Ricky becoming even angrier. As a result, he swore that he would openly taunt Mai and the Aizawas from up close if he scores.
Around an hour later, Ricky scored the goal that gave Manchester City a 2-1 lead over Manchester United.
Martin Tyler: It's Vernardi! Would you believe it? The 19-year-old created Agüero's goal and now gives the lead for City!
As he promised to himself, Ricky raised his arms in celebration and made a run before he stopped merely less than 5 yards away from where Kakeru and Nana's friends and respective families were seated.
"Hey, Murasaki! Do you enjoy the show? Do you like it, Aizawas?" Ricky taunted in Japanese.
In a matter of one second, all fans in that area of the South Stand as well as a number of fans in the Stretford End stood up shouting all kinds of insults and making all kinds of gestures towards the Argentine left-back. Obviously, Noriko and the other guests were among the first to stand up and react in one go.
"Bugger off, you money-grabbing whore!" Noriko shouted at Ricky while also showing him the middle finger.
"You're just damaged goods, Ricky! That's all you are since you left Shuukyu!" Mai shouted with an unusually aggressive tone this time.
"Shove those dreadlocks up your bollocks!" Robert shouted from his position behind Noriko.
"Lose yourself, scumbag!" M. Aizawa shouted while showing Ricky the clenched fist. It was the first time Kakeru's father was openly angry at someone when attending a match.
Meanwhile, Mito, Taeko, Mrs. Aizawa and Mrs. Mishima all gave Ricky a death glare in return. In the midst of Ricky's goal celebration, The City vice-captain Pablo arrived first and put his body between Ricky and the spectators. Then Pablo started pushing his young teammate away before things could get ugly.
"Bueno, eso es suficiente, Ricky (OK, that's enough, Ricky)." Pablo said to Ricky in Spanish before they were joined by the other City players for the celebration.
On the way back to the Eastern half of the pitch for the restart, Vincent whispered to Ricky with a frown: "You scored that goal, well done. But now, you stop your antics if you want to play the rest of the game."
Meanwhile, Kakeru could feel anger building up from within as he just saw what happened several yards away from his position on the touchline.
"How disgusting! Did you see what he just did?" Kakeru asked.
"Yes. Vernardi has gone too far." Nana replied.
"I cannot accept this kind of behavior from a soccer player nor losing to such character. I have to settle this thing against him once and for all." Kakeru said before he suddenly felt his heart beating stronger. He exactly knew what that stronger heartbeat meant.
'Nii-chan... You felt it too, right? You want to play against this team, isn't it? I really want to fight and win this game as the right way to make this guy pay too.' Kakeru spoke to himself.
Meanwhile, Nana saw the fire in Kakeru's eyes. For a second, Nana thought that Suguru's personality was trying to take over Kakeru’s body just as it happened sometimes during matches in the past. "Kakeru?" Nana asked.
"It's all right, Seven. I have control over my body. The game is only just starting because this is a test against our will to win." Kakeru replied.
After Kakeru said that last phrase, Nana then knew that her boyfriend and teammate was OK and truly eager to have a go in the second half. 'The game is just starting indeed, Kakeru.' Nana thought.
Meanwhile in Yokohama, despair reached a new high as the pub went almost silent as most viewers were left speechless after City's second goal while others were moaning or shouting a few words to express their disappointment.
Martin Tyler: United conceded 2 goals in quick succession without reply.
Among all the reactions, Ayaka was holding her face down in her hands, Kouta was burying his face in his arms on the table, Ryoma could only frown after that second goal, and Koichi was still shaking his head in disbelief. Similar reactions were seen everywhere in the pub.
By the time Wayne and Robin restarted the game with the post-goal kickoff a few seconds later, the referee blew his whistle to signal halftime and then both teams retreated to their respective dressing rooms.
Martin Tyler: That's a devastating blow for Manchester United. Now can they come back from it? They now have the daunting task of scoring at least 3 times against the team with the best defensive record in the League if they want to have the slightest hope of success.
"They need Kakeru on." Araki said.
"Say again." Coach Iwaki asked.
"If they want to have a chance to win, they need to put Kakeru on the field right at the start of the second half." Araki replied.
"Vernardi stepped up to run the show so far, but Kakeru and Suguru-san always found a way to become Vernardi's Kryptonite as far as I can remember. That's why I also think they should play him early on." Yusuke added.
"You're right, guys. I hope Sir Alex will be thinking the same thing." Coach Iwaki said as he also tried to comfort Ayaka.
"Would that even work against Manchester City? They have to score at least 3 more goals to have a chance." Ayaka asked.
"Even if they don't succeed by the time the final whistle is blown, Kakeru is one who will keep trying until the very end. We all saw miracles from Kakeru-kun before when he put everything on the line so many times in the past. He's a winner and I will never bet against him." Coach Iwaki finished.
Inside Manchester United's dressing room, Sir Alex quickly went first to the infirmary to get further news about Antonio's left knee injury. The Boss knew that if his last natural winger was out for the second half, he would need to change the approach to get through City's defense.
"How is Antonio, Rob?" Sir Alex asked the team's chief physiotherapist.
"It's not looking good for him. He still can't put any weight on his left leg and the knee is also badly swollen after that collision. He'll need to go to the hospital for further examination to make sure what the exact damage is. Sorry, Boss." Rob replied.
Sir Alex didn't say a word for a few seconds as he realized how much of a problem that injury created. "(sigh) Thanks for filling me in, Rob."
Then Sir Alex went back into the dressing room where the remaining starters were trying to get their breath back, taking sips of sports drinks and eating energy bars to reenergize themselves. However, the dressing room was silent and there was a danger it could mean that some players had doubts about their ability to come back. In order to spark something, Sir Alex decided to raise the tone of his voice in the upcoming team talk with one of his legendary hairdryer treatment speeches.
"During the tactical talk on yesterday and before the game started, WERE YOU ****ING LISTENING AT ALL!? I said that you must always have an eye on that Vernardi guy at all times, ESPECIALLY ON CORNERS, and also keep your feet moving when challenging him. KEEP PUTTING PRESSURE ON HIM. Didn't I say this? WHAT WERE YOU DOING? VERNARDI HAS SCORED 1 GOAL AND AN ASSIST... THAT MAKES 2 GOALS BECAUSE YOU ****ING LET HIM RUN FREE!" Sir Alex shouted.
The old manager from Govan, Southwest Glasgow still had that fiery temper and determination despite his old age. However, it's not like the players didn’t follow the Boss' directives. It's just that Ricky's level of performance caught the players off guard. Deep inside, the United players thought he would be making rookie mistakes of his own to get those scoring opportunities in City's half of the field. No one ever expected Ricky to play his first Manchester derby with the poise of an experienced veteran after sustaining an injury that kept him out of the game for almost 2 months before his return 11 days earlier.
While Sir Alex was speaking, Kakeru suddenly felt his heart beating strong again. 'What is it, Nii-chan?' Kakeru thought as if he was asking his brother the question.
"You got the early goal, which was excellent. But then all our chances got wasted, the passing has been ***ing slow and poor in the last 15-20 minutes, and they took advantage to score twice." Sir Alex continued.
'You sure you want me to do this, Nii-chan? You want me to speak up?' Kakeru asked to himself as his heart was beating even stronger as if it was reacting to Sir Alex's speech.
"It's not that ****ing hard to understand: either you react and keep pushing because we can still win the title, or you wait and leave it to chance. Is there no one reacting? That bastard Vernardi was involved on 2 goals and taunted our fans after scoring his goal. Doesn't that make you feel any ****ing angry? WHERE IS YOUR DETERMINATION? WHERE IS YOUR PRIDE? WELL, COME ON!" Sir Alex challenged his players
Suddenly, Kakeru had enough and stood up to speak out what he had on his mind: "I'm pissed off by Vernardi! I'm pissed off because the ones he taunted personally are my family and friends."
'What are you doing, Kakeru?' Nana thought as she spotted the last reaction first.
Surprised by the last reply, Sir Alex and all the other players turned their eyes towards Kakeru. Gathering all of his own courage to speak out furthermore at this time despite his lack of seniority, Kakeru continued to say what he had to say.
"Sorry to interrupt you, Boss. I'm very angry right now and all I want to do now is help us sticking 3, 4 or 5 goals in City's faces. More important to know is that Vernardi is NOT unbeatable!" Kakeru said.
"Listen, kid. I know you want to come on and make a difference, but..." United's vice-captain, Patrice, said before he was interrupted by the captain.
"Patrice, hold on... Kakeru, please tell all of us quickly that story you told me earlier about your first match against Vernardi." Nemanja said.
Still a little unsure, Kakeru looked around for approval. One by one, Ryan, Rio, Robin, Wayne, Nana and even Paul gave their nod before Sir Alex gave his own sign of approval to what Nemanja proposed.
"Alright… In my first year of high school, my team got to the final of the National High School Tournament for the first time ever. We played against a great team from Tokyo with Patrick Jenpa, Leonardo Silva and Ricardo Vernardi on board... all 3 are now top professionals in Europe." Kakeru began.
"You played against a team that had Jenpa, Leonardo Silva and Vernardi at the same time?" Wayne asked. He was surprised.
"Yes and their other players were very good too. We were losing 0-3 at halftime and 2-4 at some point in the second half, but we came back every time before the end of normal time. In extra time, they took the lead again at 5-4, but came back again to win 6-5." Kakeru said.
Then Kakeru paused for a few seconds before he continued: "Winning that match was special because it was the reward after so many efforts to overcome our weaknesses as a team as well as my own personal weaknesses at the time. I went on defeating Vernardi a few more times afterwards. But since that match, I swore to myself that the most recent taste of glory would never be the last one. Right now, the City players disrespect us and our fans in our fight for this title... I'll never accept that in my lifetime! Where is that will to win that inspired you to make all those comebacks so many times and earn that respect before I joined this club? You don’t have to take my word since I'm just the new kid to you, but trust me: the will to win is always more powerful than the fear of losing. Do you still have it somewhere in you?"
The players remained silent for a few seconds before the oldest player in the dressing room, Ryan, broke the silence: "It doesn't matter if I won just a national school championship medal or 12 Premier League titles... because I never want the previous taste of glory to be my last. I'm still willing to fight for this title with you, Kakeru.”
"He's right! I want to enjoy that taste of glory again as many times as possible and I won’t go out without putting up a fight. We came back in the past sometimes with 3, 4 or even 6 goals strong in the second half to win matches. We can do this again!" Rio, one of the most vocal players in the dressing room, said.
"I signed to this club hoping to win my first championship, and I might never have a second chance again. As long as the final whistle is not blown yet, I'll fight with you to make us lift that trophy!" Robin added.
"I don't know whether I will play or not today. Either way, if by risking everything I can make us win the League on this day, I'm with you in this." Nana also added.
"So am I!" each of the other players responded. Suddenly, all doubts and thoughts of giving up went away from the players' minds.
'Well done, Kakeru, and good thinking by letting him speak now, Vida.' Paul thought.
"OK, guys. Kakeru, you come on for Antonio on the right flank to begin with in the second half. Giggsy, Danny, you start preparing yourselves on the touchline at the restart. Guys, this is how things must go: Wayne, Robin, Shinji and Kakeru, I want all 4 of you to keep your feet moving and be ready to interchange positions at all times. Make sure both wings, the hole, and the front man are always open to receive a pass. Get the passing fluid and play it quick. I know you can do this." Sir Alex said as he moved the pieces on his tactical board to show the players what he wanted to see.
A few minutes later, the clock rang its bell to signal time for the players to get back on the pitch.
"All right! Get yourselves sorted, OK? C’mon! Don't lay yourselves down here now, don't even ****ing attempt it!" Sir Alex gave his final instructions. Then the players left the dressing room under the encouragements and the taps on the shoulder from Paul, René and other coaches.
"You're always full of surprises, Kakeru. Still, that was great." Nana said.
"Thanks, Seven." Kakeru replied.
Before Kakeru walked out of the dressing room, he was stopped by Sir Alex. "Kakeru."
"I know it was rude from me, Boss, and I'm sorry for that. But I had to say it out loud." Kakeru bowed in apology to the Boss.
"I believe you did the right thing. Sometimes, what a team needs can be as simple as to hear the right thing at the right time, even though I never expected it to come from you. Now, show me that you're more than just talk." Sir Alex said.
"Yes, Boss!" Kakeru finished before he got a tap on the shoulder from Sir Alex and walked out of the dressing room.
Just a little earlier, the Manchester City players came back first on the pitch. The players wearing sky blue shirts looked pumped up and ready to finish the job. Everyone was expecting the home team to come out of the players' tunnel a little flat, but the Manchester United players surprised everyone when they arrived in full stride on the Eastern half of the pitch. In response, the vast majority in the crowd cheered with their voices all out hoping to galvanize the players in red and white: "UNITED! UNITED! UNITED!"
Martin Tyler: Despite the late go-ahead goal by Manchester City, the Manchester United fans inside the stadium are going in full voice here. They still hope for a miracle, and we know that United are capable of coming back from behind as they did it so many times in the past.
Gary Neville: The next goal will be crucial for either team. Still, a lot of things can happen in 45 minutes.
As Noriko and the others watched the players in red coming onto the pitch, they noticed one of them wearing the number 9 and running on the touchline from the tunnel towards the home dugout. That player was quickly recognized by Noriko, the Aizawas and Mai.
"Kake-nii has already taken off his track jacket and track pants. He's going to play!" Mito said.
"You're right, Mito-chan! He’ll replace Antonio from the looks of it, but Fergie probably asked everyone to play 4-2-3-1 with the front 4 interchanging positions with increased movement." Noriko said.
"How can you be so sure?" Taeko asked.
"That's what I would do." Noriko replied.
"C'mon, Kakerucchi! You can do it!" Mai shouted.
"Do you see him, Suguru? Your little brother will make his top level debut right now." Mrs. Aizawa said as she shed tears of joy. At the same time, she was holding Suguru's framed picture just as she always does when she comes to see Kakeru play in a very big match.
Martin Tyler: We are told that Kakeru Aizawa will come on for the injured Antonio Valencia at the start of the second half. Let's have a word on the Valencia injury from Geoff Shreeves on the sidelines. Geoff...
Geoff Shreeves: Martin, as you already know, Antonio Valencia hurt himself on that knee-to-knee contact with Vernardi just before City scored their second goal. He was unable to put any weight on his left leg when he was carried to the infirmary. I was informed that he will no longer continue today and that he will need further examination to assess the injury before we would know if the ligaments have been damaged.
Martin Tyler: Thank you, Geoff. Well, Sir Alex Ferguson is currently left with very little choice because of that injury. But nonetheless, it is now quite a day for this young man.
As one of the TV cameras pointed towards Kakeru and showed him running towards the technical area in front of the home dugout, a vast of majority of Manchester United fans from all over the world were buzzing when they saw him for the first time on TV. In Yokohama as well as in the rest of Japan, all the Japanese United fans in the sports pubs stood up to applaud Kakeru.
"C'mon, Kakeru!" Yusuke shouted.
"It looks like Sir Alex thought the same way you did, boys." Coach Iwaki said.
"I'm really glad Kakeru's on. He has that fire in his eyes and it only means that the game is just beginning." Araki said.
"However, City still have the edge in athleticism over the United players and are excellent in man-marking. I wonder how United can beat them." Koichi asked.
“By using quick passes and one-touch passing play unlike in the first half, United would have a chance to wear City down.” Araki replied.
"Indeed. The best way to regain the upper hand over City is to play one-touch soccer, which would dissolve their markings and create open spaces for the forwards with superior instincts. United have 3 forwards on the field with superior instincts to take advantage from one-touch passing: Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Kakeru-kun. Also, we must not forget Kagawa-san as the mobile playmaker and the key man in the one-touch system." Coach Iwaki said.
"Just like when Enoshima used that system to open up Shonan High's Four Arrows, isn't it?" Koichi replied while he remembered what happened around 3 years ago.
"Exactly, Hibino-kun. This is where this game will be played if such plan is in place." Coach Iwaki finished as he watched the broadcast and saw Kakeru ready to come on.
Standing in front of the home dugout, Kakeru took a deep breath as he waited for the signal from the 4th official, who was putting up the numbers on his board. When number 7 in red and number 9 in green appeared on the 4th official's electronic board, Kakeru ran across the field towards his assigned starting position on the right wing. At the same time, Old Trafford's public address announcer, Alan Keegan, made the official announcement of the substitution.
Alan Keegan: Substitution for Manchester United: replacing number 7, Antonio Valencia... number 9, Kakeru Aizawa.
Finally, the moment Kakeru waited for so long in his lifetime had arrived and he was ready to take on the vital mission of infusing a dose of new energy to Manchester United’s attacking force. As Kakeru arrived to his position on the right wing, he looked further ahead of him and his gaze met Ricky's at the same time.
'So you want a battle to see who's got the strongest will to win? Bring it on, Aizawa!' Ricky thought.
'By the time the final whistle is blown, I will make you regret everything you did today in the best way I know how to.' Kakeru thought.