The Sons of the Gods
After the victory against Everton, Manchester United played two more matches at Old Trafford. United won 4-1 against Championship side Burton Albion F.C. (EFL Cup 3rd round, September 20) and 4-0 against West Ham United (Premier League, September 23). However, United received bad news as club captain Michael Carrick had to be sidelined after he felt more tired than usual during the match against Burton Albion. It was later found that Michael suffered irregular heart rhythm, a condition that required heart surgery and a closely monitored recovery for months.
After West Ham, United set course towards Amsterdam, Netherlands for the first away match in the group stages of the Champions League on the following Tuesday. Regarded as a tough test, the Red Devils now have to clash with the team that has been nicknamed “De Godenzonen” (The Sons of the Gods) in honor of the great 1965-1973 team that was synonym with "Total Football" and with their late legendary superstar, Johan Cruijff. The opposition for the night is Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax.
Tuesday September 26
A.F.C. Ajax vs. Manchester United (UEFA Champions League group match 2)
The Manchester United team bus was on the way towards the Johan Cruijff Arena with police bikes escorting it since their departure from the hotel. On board, Kakeru was listening to his music, but he was highly anticipating this match from deep within. Then Yusuke stood up from the seat behind, and slightly poked Kakeru, asking for a talk.
"What is it, Yusuke?" Kakeru asked.
"You're excited about tonight’s match, right? I know you're feeling this way."
"Yeah. I marked this date on my calendar ever since the draw for the Champions League group stage was made."
"Is it because of Hibino-san?" Yusuke asked.
"It will be my first match against him since high school, so I can't wait to see how far he made progress of his own out there." Kakeru replied.
"Right. Hibino-san was injured when you guys last played against Ajax in the Europa League final in Stockholm, right?" Yusuke asked.
"You're right, Yusuke. No matter how people see it, I wanted that challenge between me and him in that final. But it was just not meant to be in that night." Kakeru replied.
"I haven't played against Hibino-san since we were training together in elementary school. I also have a few butterflies, so I really can’t wait." Nana said.
"Looks like the Boss saw that coming, so he gave you a break on Saturday ahead of this." Yusuke said.
"I guess so." Nana replied.
"Tonight's your night, Seven." Kakeru replied to Nana before he turned towards his Dutch teammate, Daley, sitting on the seat at the other side of the middle alley. "Bent u enthousiast gevoel ook? (Are you feeling excited too?)"
"Ik ben. Het is mijn eerste club wedstrijd in Amsterdam sinds ik liet Ajax.. (I am. It's my first club match in Amsterdam since I left Ajax.)" Daley replied.
"Ik denk dat het zal speciaal voor jou. (I guess it will be special for you.)" Kakeru said.
"Als hun vroegere kapitein, zal het heel bijzonder zijn. (As their former captain, it will be very special.)" Daley replied. "Hey, Kakeru. Your Dutch is really improving well."
During the conversation, Nana translated the conversation so Yusuke could understand what was said between Kakeru and Daley.
"I really didn't know you two speak Dutch." Yusuke was surprised.
"A little. We learned a few basics a little while ago from our friend and former teammate, Robin van Persie. Dutch language has a number of similarities with English." Nana said.
"So if I get this right, Nana, you speak Japanese, English, French, Spanish, and now some Dutch. Is there another language you're comfortable with?"
"Don't ask too much from me, Yusuke." Nana replied between chuckles.
"Here we are!" José warned everyone on the bus as the Johan Cruijff Arena finally arrived within sight. It was 6:40 PM Amsterdam time (5:40 PM BST) when the Manchester United team bus stopped inside the garage of the stadium moments later.
West Didsbury, Manchester, UK
7:20 PM BST
Once again, Noriko was staying at home with Sarah coming in as a visitor when United had a match played on the road. The 2 female medical students were a little anxious ahead of the match.
"It's a big one tonight, eh?" Sarah asked.
"Yeah, but I'm sure we are not the ones having the most butterflies ahead of this match right now." Noriko replied.
"Tell me more about that Japanese defender playing for Ajax."
"Koichi Hibino... Kakeru and Nana used to play alongside him and Suguru Aizawa in the same elementary school team. If Kakeru and Nana were spearheading the attack while Suguru was the creative force, Koichi apparently was the human wall between his goalkeeper and any opponent who's going down the middle." Noriko replied.
"Wow! Now that you say it, I'm intrigued. How did he end up in Holland?" Sarah asked.
"Based on what Kakeru told me, Hibino had a bad knee injury, and the only country that could offer him the kind of surgery he needed to heal that injury was the Netherlands. He spent a few years there before he returned to Japan, and then completed high school. Finally, Ajax signed him after 2 years in the J-League, and he's been with Ajax since."
"What kind of position is he playing in the back 4?"
"He's a very good centre-back, but he can also be solid as a left-back when needed." Noriko replied. "Kakeru and Nana will have quite a big task ahead of them for tonight, but I think they will do alright."
"Fingers crossed, especially with our number 1 goalkeeper sitting out because of a virus." Sarah finished.
Johan Cruijff Arena, Amsterdam, Netherlands
8:39 PM Amsterdam time (7:39 PM BST)
Both teams were lining up in the tunnel. Of course, the first Ajax player who noticed the 3 Japanese players starting for United was Koichi Hibino himself.
"Yo!" Koichi said as he started shaking hands with his friends.
"Hibino! It has been quite a long time since we last faced against each other, isn't it?" Kakeru said.
"Since high school, it has been too long indeed. We play against each other in training with the National Team, but that’s nowhere near the intensity of a competitive match at senior level."
"That's for sure." Yusuke replied.
"I hope you haven't forgotten that you'll need to give your best against me, Kakeru. I will make up for my absence from the Europa League final that we lost in Stockholm."
"I will score goals tonight, and we, Manchester United, will be the last ones standing with the 3 points." Kakeru replied with a smile. The competitive spirit was burning once again between the 2 friends and rivals.
"Don't forget about me, Hibino-san. I will make my presence count too. So don't hold yourself back just because I'm a woman. I will take some, but I will give some as well." Nana added as well.
"If you ask for it, then bring it on, Red Devils." Koichi finished as the referees were about to receive the signal to lead both teams out.
"COME ON, LADS! LET'S DO THIS!" Matthias shouted at his teammates to make sure they were pumped up and ready for the match.
Both Ajax and United's starting XIs walked out of the tunnel under a deafening noise with the thousands of Ajax supporters waving flags marked with the years of their 4 European Cup triumphs (1971, 1972, 1973, and 1995). Nevertheless, fan-made flags from 2 sets of hardcore Ajax fans also stood up proudly in a large section of the South stand. As both teams lined up for the customary Champions League hymn, worldwide broadcasts were following the cameraman who was taking a closer look at players from both teams. In West Didsbury, a certain young woman only had eyes for United's newest addition.
"Ganbare, Yusuke." Noriko said with a low voice.
"Did something change with you recently?" Sarah asked.
"N-No. Why are you asking?"
"Oh, come on. I know there's something different with you." Sarah said before she took a few seconds to think, and then came up with: "Oh! I guess the reason why you're so cheerful now is because of A NEW BOYFRIEND!"
"Whaaaaaa… What are you talking about? I'm not in that kind of relationship with anyone, Sarah." Noriko was totally flabbergasted at Sarah's words.
"So, who is he? What does he look like?"
"Cut it out, Sarah. The match is about to start." Noriko said.
Back to Amsterdam, both teams already shook hands a short time ago, and were taking positions for kickoff. United, with their field players wearing all-black kits, elected to kick things off first while Ajax, wearing shirts with color patterns that were reminiscent of Arsenal's home shirts, chose the half of the pitch on which they would defend in the first half.
Clive Tyldesley: It's a clash of 2 European clubs with glorious history behind each of them, but the dominant Ajax sides in Europe appear now as distant memories as 1995 was the last time Ajax lifted the European Cup. The last time United were crowned as Champions of Europe was that night in Moscow, in 2008. With the memory of the Europa League final still fresh for the 2 sides, we can expect a good contest tonight at the Johan Cruijff Arena.
The match started with Ajax midfielder Lasse Schöne receiving the ball form his forwards. After a few passes strung together for 45 seconds, Ajax pushed forward. However, the quick ball hunting by United players forced Ajax to clear the ball away, and to give ball possession back to the visitors.
Clive Tyldesley: Good pressure by Manchester United, but the ball is cleared...
The cleared ball was met by Matthias' head, and flew back into Ajax’s territory for Henrikh on the right flank. The Armenian winger immediately dashed forward with the ball.
Clive Tyldesley: Here's Mkhitaryan... He’s looking for teammates.
On the opposite flank, Kakeru was running alongside the Ajax right-back and towards the front of the goal while Romelu was a little late in his run on the attack. Spotting Kakeru across, Henrikh made a nifty feint to shake off a defender, and then unleashed a through pass across towards him.
Clive Tyldesley: It's for Aizawa! Cleared by De Ligt...
The Ajax defender, Matthijs de Ligt, managed to stick his leg out just ahead of Kakeru, and cleared the ball away from the latter. However, the ball then bounced back towards Romelu standing by the penalty spot and ready to fire the shot.
Clive Tyldesley: Oh, it goes back as far as Lukaku! Fantastic block on the line!
Romelu's instant shot was however blocked by a timely intervention from Koichi, who put his body in front of the shot just in time to prevent a goal, and let the ball fly behind for a corner kick. Kakeru just couldn't believe what he just saw from his own position.
"I will be damned!" Kakeru said out loud for himself, hands on top of his head.
"Goed gedaan, Koichi! (Well done, Koichi!)" Ajax captain Joël Veltman congratulated his Japanese teammate with a high five.
"Bedankt, maar we moeten ze ook weer stoppen. (Thanks, but we have to stop them again too.)" Koichi replied. Meanwhile, Nana already made her way towards the corner flag to take the corner kick.
Clive Tyldesley: Mishima will take this corner kick.
Upon the referee's whistle, Nana kicked the high ball towards the front of the near post. In the mass of players who went for the ball, Romelu reached it first. With a free header, the Belgian slotted the ball between goalkeeper and defender to draw first blood in the night.
Clive Tyldesley: It's going to Lukaku, 1-0! Less than 2 minutes in, Romelu Lukaku has struck for Manchester United.
"Good eye and good shot!" Kakeru congratulated his Belgian teammate.
"Kudos to the Little Witch too!" Pog said.
"Jolie passe (Nice pass), Witch!" Romelu thanked Nana for the accurate ball.
"Merci, Rom!" Nana replied.
"Here we go, guys! Let's keep the pressure on." Matthias said
Meanwhile, the Ajax supporters in the stadium were left silenced after Romelu managed to slip by his markers so easily, and sent the home team into a difficult situation early on.
'This match is only getting started. We won't roll over that easily at home.' Koichi thought.
Although Ajax had all the best intentions in the world to get back on level terms in the match, Manchester United still remained in control of the match for most of the time. Just 5 minutes after the opening goal scored by Romelu, the Mancunians had a chance to double their lead through a play that began with an interception.
Clive Tyldesley: Again Yusuke Saeki intercepts a loose ball. You have to admit that Ajax’s passing game has not been that sharp so far.
Yusuke intercepted the ball, and started the counterattack from his own half. Looking for options ahead, he passed the ball forward to Nana. After a run past one of Ajax's midfielders by using a quick side dribble, Nana came up facing Koichi in a 1v1 situation for the first time in several years.
"I have been waiting for this, Mishima. Bring it on!" Koichi said.
Nana dribbled with the ball, and shifted her body left and right in an attempt to shake off Koichi. However, the latter didn’t make the first move against Nana.
'This is not good. Hibino-san is not easily fooled by my feints. Kakeru and Rom are covered by defenders. Unless there is...' Nana thought before she spotted another teammate making a run.
Clive Tyldesley: Mishima flicks it...
Nana saw Henrikh using his pace to make a run that caught the Ajax left-back off guard inside the penalty area, Nana surprised Koichi by flicking the ball above him. United's Armenian winger was in position to take a shot from Nana's surprise aerial ball.
Clive Tyldesley: It's Mkhitaryan! Stopped by the goalkeeper...
With little time to react, the Ajax goalkeeper could only parry the ball away without controlling it. Meanwhile, Kakeru escaped his marker in the midst of the confusion, and ran towards the rebound. The Ajax goalkeeper was still down on the ground, and United's second goal appeared to be inevitable.
"I won't let you!" Koichi shouted.
Koichi put his body in to stop Kakeru's shot at point blank. The following deflection then struck off the crossbar and back to the position of an Ajax defender, who finally kicked the ball out of bounds in panic.
Clive Tyldesley: Another fantastic block by Hibino! Twice he saved Ajax tonight. They would have been down by at least 2 goals if it wasn't for him.
"Just as back in the days, it will take you something extraordinary to score past me, Kakeru." Koichi said, sending the same kind of friendly challenge he first sent to Kakeru in their first match from many years ago between Enoshima and Shonan.
"I'm a forward, Hibino. Even if I already have 8 goals so far this season, I won't leave Amsterdam without scoring at least once." Kakeru replied.
"Just bring it then!"
Meanwhile, Ajax's captain was mostly angry at the sloppiness from his fellow defenders.
"Wakker worden, iedereen! Koichi gered onze ezels nu twee keer! (Wake up, everybody! Koichi saved our asses twice now!)" Joël Veltman shouted.
At the same time in West Didsbury:
"Bloody hell! That defender Hibino denied us 2 goals already." Sarah said.
"I know. Kakeru told me he was good, but I didn't think he would be as solid as he has been so far." Noriko replied. "Just thinking of how he stood his ground against Nana before that pass is indicating his quality in 1v1s."
"We better hope he doesn’t score a free kick with that shot you talked about."
"Same for me, Sarah. My friends in Japan called him the Japanese Roberto Carlos and they are right; he scored a few in youth international matches." Noriko finished.
As if the message from the Ajax captain was loud and clear enough inside the Johan Cruijff Arena, the Ajax players started to tighten things up and then press the Manchester United players harder. As a result, it became more difficult for United to penetrate the opposition's half and to make accurate passes. Ajax didn't mount any serious attack against the Manchester United goal yet, but that was about to change when Ajax earned their first corner kick of the match in the 21st minute.
Clive Tyldesley: Ajax have a corner kick. Lasse Schöne will take.
The Ajax player took the corner kick, but also surprised everyone as he let the ball roll very quickly towards the front of the Manchester United penalty area rather than whipping it in. Taking a glance towards the trajectory of the pass, Kakeru spotted the dashing Koichi.
"Damn it!" Kakeru exclaimed.
Despite Kakeru's best efforts to throw his body in front of the shot, he came in too late by a fraction of a second. It was all Koichi needed to blast a low shot through the maze of players. Furthermore, Ajax striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar just needed one split second to stick his foot out, and then deflected Koichi's shot between the number 2 Manchester United goalkeeper, Sergio Romero, and one of his defenders. The outcome sent the Johan Cruijff Arena into frenzy.
Clive Tyldesley: Deflected and in! It's 1-1! It's Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who scores. Nothing Sergio Romero could do to stop this.
While the Ajax players celebrated the goal, Kakeru was looking in disgust knowing that he was the closest to stop the shot, and yet couldn’t save the goal.
"Sorry, guys. I should have known that he can shoot from there free kick-like." Kakeru apologized to his teammates.
"No need to apologize, Knight. That shot was deflected, and we are all guilty in this." Matthias replied.
"It's only a little setback. We'll get them next time." Daley added.
"The game is getting interesting now. A little resistance can only push us to get better." Yusuke said.
"Let's score that next goal, Kakeru." Nana added.
"Right!" Kakeru exclaimed, determined to get back into action once more, and to help his team score that vital go-ahead goal within the remaining 69 minutes of play.
For several minutes, both teams appeared to cancel each other in a game of quick passing and ball hunting that happened mainly in the middle of the pitch although United spent a little more time in the opposing third of the pitch than Ajax did in United's defensive third. The first half was winding down, and no team appeared to be able to make a breakthrough that would lead to a goal so close to halftime.
In the 42nd minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Schöne takes the corner... easy catch for Romero this time.
The Manchester United goalkeeper caught the ball after an Ajax corner kick, and threw the ball forward immediately to start a counterattack. Romelu took the ball, and made his dash down the field.
Clive Tyldesley: Terrific pass. Lukaku has got Kakeru Aizawa with him. Now, it's Aizawa...
Romelu then left the ball to Kakeru, who then dribbled past 2 players before attempting to skip past another in the process. However at the very same time Kakeru was about to beat 3rd Ajax player in the same run, he was pushed down and hard from behind by a retreating defender. It was Koichi's defensive partner, Matthijs de Ligt.
Clive Tyldesley: Pushed down from behind by De Ligt. It's going to be the first yellow card in the match, and it's against Ajax.
Despite some protests from the Ajax players, nothing changed the referee's decision. Worse than the yellow card was the fact that the point of infringement only stood 23 yards in front of goal, and thus within an excellent range for United’s free kick takers.
"Kakeru. I know Hibino-san will try to mark you. But still, be ready to jump on any rebound available." Nana said.
"Count on me, but try to put that on goal first." Kakeru replied.
Nana nodded before she and Romelu moved to free kick shooting positions while Kakeru took his spot in the wall of Ajax players. Kakeru's job was to distract Ajax's defensive setup and the Ajax goalkeeper while staying on the hunt for rebounds.
Clive Tyldesley: Who will take it?
While everyone expected Romelu to take the shot, Nana surprised everyone by taking the shot with a short run. The curve of the shot flew over the wall, and then appeared to swirl towards the top corner.
Clive Tyldesley: It's Mishima! Off the post...
Nana's shot hit the inside of the post, but then bounced back towards the face of the goal while the goalkeeper was already sent sprawling on the ground after a failed attempt of a save. Kakeru and Koichi tried to get to the ball, but it was a Frenchman who arrived first.
Clive Tyldesley: Pogba scores! 2-1! Manchester United have taken the lead again only minutes before halftime. Mishima's free kick struck the post, but then bounced back for Pogba with the open goal.
While the Manchester United players celebrated on the pitch, the same amount of joy could be found with any United fan watching, especially for 2 women in West Didsbury.
"Well done, Pogba!" Noriko exclaimed.
"Right place, right time. Still, it's all thanks to Nana again." Sarah replied.
"You're right. Her shot sent the goalkeeper in a position where he can't defend himself on any rebound."
"All they have to now is to get to the dressing room at halftime with the lead." Sarah said.
"As long as we don't do anything silly at the back until then, we should be fine." Noriko finished.
Despite the initial shock after falling behind 1-2 so close to halftime, Ajax got up to the challenge of trying to score the equalizer once more, and got themselves one more opportunity to do so. Ajax's last attack of the first half came in the dying seconds before halftime.
Clive Tyldesley: Here's Veltman... with a burst of speed down that right flank.
The Ajax right-back made a quick run on the wing. Despite Daley's presence in front, Joël Veltman played a perfect nutmeg through Daley's legs. With space ahead, Veltman sent a long cross towards Huntelaar running towards the front of the Manchester United goal.
Clive Tyldesley: Deflected off Huntelaar! Good save by Romero!
However, Sergio couldn't reach the ball he spilled in front of him. Ajax's forward, Kasper Dolberg, got to the ball first, but couldn't shoot with his back to the goal. Dolberg then passed back towards Lasse Schöne. In a slight moment of panic within the Mancunian setup, Yusuke tackled Schöne down in his run to stop the shooting attempt, but also conceded the free kick just 23 yards from goal.
Clive Tyldesley: Schöne has been brought down by Saeki.
"What was that? He should get a yellow card; our guy got one earlier for something like that." Joël protested towards the referee.
"That wasn't enough to book him based on my position. You get the free kick." the referee replied.
Despite a few more protests, the Ajax players moved into position as they knew time was against them before halftime. The United players used every single trick in the book to delay the kick as much as possible, but were swiftly put back to order by the referee. For both Ajax and United, it was obvious who was about to take the shot.
Clive Tyldesley: Now, Ajax have a free kick and a golden opportunity to equalize at the end of the first half through Koichi Hibino.
Meanwhile, Kakeru and Nana had a quick chat as they positioned themselves in the wall with the majority of their teammates.
"Are you crazy? You can't get in the wall, especially when you never faced his shots." Kakeru said, surprised that Nana didn’t hesitate in moving herself into the wall.
"I'm a part of this team, and I don’t want to be seen as a coward." Nana replied.
"Just don't do anything crazy out right now, Seven."
Standing more than 15 yards away from the wall, Koichi was looking at the surprise addition of Nana in the middle of the defensive wall.
'Nothing personal, but you must be crazy. It's a vulnerable position for the goalkeeper if my shot gets past where you're standing in that wall. I really wonder how much courage you will have left after you see the speed in my shot.' Koichi thought before he took a few more steps back.
Given the signal to proceed, Koichi made his run, and struck the ball with high velocity. The ball's trajectory was destined to fly above Nana's head. Realizing that the shot would leave no chance for Sergio if it gets through, Nana knew what she had to do.
'Don't give in to fear... Keep your eyes open... Stop the shot at all costs.' Nana thought for herself within a split second.
Without any hesitation, Nana jumped upwards, and then got struck by Koichi's shot in the face. The impact sent Nana flying, but the ball got deflected behind the goal line and out of danger. The referee then blew the halftime whistle. However, the main concern from the Manchester United side was that Nana landed hard after she was struck with arguably the most powerful shot she ever faced.
'What the hell?! Is she insane?' Koichi thought. His body language transpired the shock and disbelief he felt after Nana's crazy action, so much that not a single Manchester United player was angry at him after the incident.
Clive Tyldesley: Mishima took the shot straight on. And Koichi Hibino's shots have been registered exceeding 160 km/h (100 MPH). Nana Mishima has protected Manchester United's lead into halftime, but the question now is whether or not Nana Mishima will be able to carry on.
"Seven! Seven! Are you OK? Say something." Kakeru said.
"I'm fine. If anything, I’m glad I took that one for the team." Nana replied as she stood up.
"You're bleeding, Seven." Kakeru said, noticing that Nana's nose was bleeding.
The Manchester United team doctor, Steve McNally, came quickly to assess the damage, and immediately gave Nana some cotton balls to stop the bleeding.
"You are one crazy woman. You know that? Many male players would have avoided contact with that." Koichi said as he went to see how Nana was doing.
"I knew what I was doing when I decided to play as a professional against men. I would do it again if it comes down to it." Nana replied.
"Anyway, that was never my intention to hit you with that ball."
"No hard feelings, Hibino-san." Nana finished.
When everything was deemed OK, Nana was escorted by both Kakeru and Steve towards the player's tunnel under the applause from the crowd in the Johan Cruijff Arena. For that courageous block alone, Nana earned massive respect from everyone.
Meanwhile in West Didsbury:
"Goodness me. I thought for a second Nana was knocked out cold by that shot." Sarah said.
"I thought the same thing too. I know she's tough as a person, but that shot is something not many people would accept to take it face first." Noriko replied.
"I think it would be safer if the manager pulls her out of the match, Noriko."
"I know, Sarah. However, knowing her, she won't go down so easily. Whatever happens, I'm sure Dr. McNally will make the right call."
Back to the Johan Cruijff Arena, inside Manchester United's dressing room:
Steve worked his way to make sure Nana didn't sustain any serious damage after the shot. Furthermore, Steve asked Nana a few quick questions as part of a quick cognitive evaluation in order to determine whether she has concussion or not at the moment. So far, Nana was OK to continue the match. Kakeru went to the visitors' medical room after the manager's halftime team talk.
"So, Doc, how is she doing?" Kakeru asked.
"I will tell you this: your fiancee is made tough. I checked for a broken nose or a broken cheekbone. She might need to have a few X-rays tomorrow so we can be sure of everything, but I don't think she has anything broken from what I can see. Also, she doesn't any sign of a concussion for now. In other words: she's fortunate to have only some bleeding from the nose after that impact, but she has to keep that cotton in her nose to prevent further bleeding." Steve replied.
"Thanks for the checkup, Doc. I'm glad there isn't more." Nana said.
"However, I will keep an eye on you during the whole second half. If I see anything wrong in your game, I will ask the Boss to sub you off ASAP." Steve warned.
"That's fine by me, Doc." Nana replied before she turned towards Kakeru. "I'm really sorry to make you worry like that, Kakeru. However, I knew that his shot would be going in if I didn't stop it."
"(sigh) Make sure you to be more careful next time, that's all I need to hear." Kakeru said.
Nana and Kakeru then joined their teammates in the dressing room. The Little Witch was greeted with a big round of applause.
"Attagirl, Witch!" Daley shouted.
"You earned your warrior stripes tonight. That’s for sure." Pog said.
"Thanks, guys. I just hope I won't have to do that often." Nana replied.
"That's all good, but we still have some unfinished business out there. Only 45 minutes left, then we can celebrate." Matthias said.
"That's right! We keep playing hard until this one ends with the result we want." Pog said.
"YEAH!" the Manchester United players shouted in unison.
When the second half started, United and Ajax started things a little slowly. However, it wasn't long before Ajax turned up the heat, and started attacking as they needed the equalizing goal so badly in front of their supporters. As early as in the 50th minute, Ajax launched an attack inside the Manchester United half.
Clive Tyldesley: Now, it's Hakim Ziyech. He's looking for support...
The Moroccan midfielder dashed forward with the ball in full speed. Yusuke both moved in to try taking the ball off him. However, Ziyech stood strong, and then made a turn before he passed the ball towards his right winger.
Clive Tyldesley: Kasper Dolberg... He's crossing the ball in...
Dolberg spotted his teammate, Amin Younes, lurking on the opposite side inside the Manchester United penalty area. The ball was flying towards Amin, but Antonio arrived first to cut the pass. However, Antonio's bad first touch got the ball bouncing towards the front of the penalty area where danger was lurking with an Ajax midfielder ready to shoot.
Clive Tyldesley: It's Schöne!
The strike flew hard and low, but just missed the goal by a few inches. The spectators inside the stadium couldn’t believe how they were close to equalize.
Clive Tyldesley: It was just a whisker away! Schöne had a chance when Antonio Valencia miskicked the ball.
'This is not good. We have to play tighter if they want to attack us like that.' Kakeru thought as he watched the most recent action in distance.
Ajax kept on going with the firm intention of wearing down the Manchester United players. Just a little less than 4 minutes later, the locals had another chance to score.
Clive Tyldesley: Saeki with the pass... It's intercepted by Hibino.
Koichi intercepted a pass that was destined for Nana, and then charged forward with the ball for some distance. Then he passed the ball towards Ziyech, who skipped past Pog, and continued the run towards the Manchester United penalty area. Antonio also tried to tackle the ball away, but missed the tackle.
Clive Tyldesley: Ziyech got past Antonio Valencia, finds Dolberg...
Within just a couple of one-touch passes for a give-and-go, Dolberg set up Ziyech with a clever pass. The Ajax midfielder then got some space off Matthias, and struck a hard and low shot towards the bottom corner across the goalkeeper.
Clive Tyldesley: Ziyech! What a save by Sergio Romero!
In a desperate dive, Sergio stretched his left arm just enough to stop Ziyech's shot. However, he also conceded a corner kick by doing so. Although the following corner kick wasn’t converted afterwards, momentum was clearly in favor of the Dutch team while United were on their heels. In the 59th minute, Ajax started another attack from a throw-in from just beyond the halfway line.
Clive Tyldesley: Veltman with the throw...
The Ajax right-back passed the ball to one of his defensive midfielder, who then passed the ball to Koichi.
Clive Tyldesley: Now, it's Hibino...
'Now, give me a runner, guys. I'm sure they won't expect me trying this.' Koichi thought
As Koichi walked a few yards across the halfway line with the ball, he spotted a gap between 2 Manchester United defenders. At the very same time, Dolberg made a sign calling for a pass, and started his run. Without a moment of hesitation, Koichi unleashed a fast rolling pass into the breach and just enough for his teammate to beat the offside trap.
Clive Tyldesley: Skipped through... Chance for Dolberg!
Eric tried to catch up to Dolberg while Matthias also tried to provide help, but the Dane from Ajax was never going to get caught. Inevitably, Dolberg took the shot past Sergio, and pulled his team back on terms.
Clive Tyldesley: It's 2-2! Twice Manchester United took the lead, and twice Ajax came back from behind. Kasper Dolberg has scored the goal, but it was a fantastic pass by Koichi Hibino.
In West Didsbury:
"No, I don't believe it! I just don't believe it!" Sarah exclaimed.
"The defending was crap! We lost our concentration there." Noriko added.
"I know people will say that it has been coming, but how can we lack energy at this time?"
"I don't know, Sarah. However, all I can say is that our players are running out of energy rather quickly." Noriko replied. "If Nana is pulled out, it would be because she spent a lot of energy against Hibino and the other Ajax players with that ball hunting. It’s the same thing for Mkhitaryan."
"Who do you expect to come on if we make changes?" Sarah asked.
"If I were Mourinho, I would say: Mata for Nana, and Martial for Mkhitaryan at the same time soon." Noriko replied.
Back in the noisy Johan Cruijff Arena:
"You OK, Seven?" Kakeru asked, concerned by how Nana looked a little tired.
"I spent perhaps a little too much energy resisting Ajax’s ball hunting tactics and trying to beat Hibino-san in physical duels, but I will stay as long as I can. If you’re asking about whether it has something to do with the shot I took in the face, then the answer is 'no'." Nana replied.
"Are you sure?" Kakeru asked further.
"I never lied to you about my health, so I'm not going to start lying today. Don't worry."
"OK. Try to hang on a little longer until the Boss makes the changes. The others are warming up well out there." Kakeru said.
And Kakeru's last sentence was spot on. Knowing that fresh legs had to come on to hope any change of momentum back in United's favor, José made the first changes of the match when Nana and Henrikh were replaced by Juan and Anthony in the 64th minute. After a few handshakes with the other substitutes, Nana walked up to José.
"I only wish I didn't waste as much energy as I did, Boss." Nana said.
"That's fine. Scoring those 2 assists allowed us to be on top twice in the match." José replied before he shook hands with Nana.
"I'm confident that we will get through this even if it is not our best game. Just trust your teammates, especially Kakeru. He told me about his friendly rivalry with Hibino.” Rui said to Nana.
"He did?" Nana asked.
"Yes, Kakeru said that every time he plays against Hibino, he wants to push himself to another level. I believe there's another magical moment left in him for tonight." Rui replied.
Since the 64th minute, the changes made to the Manchester United side succeeded in putting the Ajax players a little more on the defensive. The Red Devils started laying a siege on the Ajax goal once again.
In the 71st minute:
Clive Tyldesley: De Ligt... has the pass taken away by Pogba.
The Ajax defender attempted a pass towards his midfield teammate in front of him, but the pass was cut through good anticipation by Pog. The French midfielder then passed the ball towards Kakeru, who started the counterattack with the 2 Ajax defenders in front of him.
"Knight!" a voice called for a pass to his right.
Clive Tyldesley: Aizawa has Lukaku in support.
Kakeru passed the ball towards Romelu, who then came up facing Koichi.
"Your run stops here, Lukaku!" Koichi said.
Clive Tyldesley: Lukaku with the shot... blocked.
The ball was blocked by Koichi, and the rebound bounced towards his partner in central defense. However, the ball wasn't controlled by the Ajax defender, which allowed Juan to cut across and have a go.
Clive Tyldesley: Juan Mata might have a go! It's gone just wide to the post.
Juan's shot rolled just wide to the post, and gave the Ajax goalkeeper quite a scare. Nevertheless, it was indicative of how Juan can still be a dangerous player when given the chance to shoot. For the Ajax defenders, it meant a bigger problem having to cover Kakeru, Romelu, Anthony, and Juan at the same time.
In the 78th minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Schöne... Pogba takes the ball away from him.
Schöne's attempt to create an opening was thwarted by the French midfielder, who then took the ball with him to start the counterattack.
Clive Tyldesley: He finds Mata in support... Blind...
Pog passed the ball towards Juan, who then ran a few yards, and then passed the ball to the overlapping Daley on the left flank. Looking for options, Daley passed towards Anthony on the outside of Ajax's penalty area. Instinctively, the French winger made a one-touch pass backwards to Romelu.
Clive Tyldesley: Nice flick by Martial to Lukaku... Now Aizawa...
After a little run across the front of the Ajax penalty area, Romelu passed the ball to Kakeru. Romelu then made his run towards the inside of the penalty area hoping for the give-and-go to be played, however Kakeru realized that Koichi already marked the Belgian while other Ajax players were arriving to defend.
'No room to go... I need someone ready to shoot first time.' Kakeru thought.
"Knight! Give it!" Juan called from behind Kakeru on the left.
Clive Tyldesley: It's Juan Mata!
In his stride, Juan took a one-timer following Kakeru's layoff pass. The shot appeared to roll towards the bottom corner of the goal after it went past a few bodies, but the Ajax goalkeeper just got his fingertips on the shot, and deflected it wide.
Clive Tyldesley: Oh! That's a really good save! I don't know how much he saw of that.
"Damn! I was sure that was it." Kakeru exclaimed.
"Me too. They are on their heels now, so let's keep going!" Juan replied.
"Right!" Kakeru said.
Meanwhile on the bench:
"That was so close." Henrikh said.
"Yeah, but we are in control of the match. This is important." Nana replied.
"I hope we stop missing chances though." Ander said.
"I know. One mistake from either side will cost the match." Nana finished.
Despite the chances United had since the substitutes arrived on the pitch, the scoreline still remained tied at 2-2. As the end of the match moved ever closer by the minute, supporters from both sides were getting extremely nervous as one single mistake could cost the winning goal the worst possible time just like Nana said. That proved to be the case in the 85th minute when it started with a corner kick for Ajax.
Clive Tyldesley: Corner kick for Ajax. You have to feel that one more goal at this stage would settle it all for both sides tonight.
The ball flew from the corner flag towards the mass of players inside the Manchester United penalty area. Anthony tried to clear the ball out with a header, but missed the ball in the process.
Clive Tyldesley: Missed by Martial, Younes is there...
Unfortunately for the Ajax player, he didn't hit his header as cleanly as he wished. The ball bounced towards Ziyech, but Yusuke jumped higher than him to reach the ball first. Because Yusuke also had his hands on Ziyech's shoulders, and took him down in the process, the Ajax supporters protested. However, the referee ordered the play to continue.
Clive Tyldesley: Turned away by Saeki.
Meanwhile, the bouncing ball flew towards Juan. The Spaniard noticed that Ajax moved too many players forward on the corner kick, and that Kakeru only had one field player standing on the way to the Ajax goal. In a blink of an eye, Juan the pass forward.
Clive Tyldesley: Great ball by Juan Mata, and Aizawa might run all the way.
Since Kakeru was inside his own half when Juan unleashed the pass, there was no way he was offside. However, Koichi also followed Kakeru in full speed in the mad dash towards the Ajax goal.
"You won't do it! I won't let you score!" Koichi shouted.
"This one ends here and now!" Kakeru replied.
Clive Tyldesley: Hibino is trying to catch up with him. Aizawa will have to do it alone.
When Kakeru was about to reach the edge of Ajax's penalty area, Koichi was about to catch up with him. With a touch of boldness, Kakeru feinted to his run towards the right, and then performed a sombrero flick to shift the run to his left within a split second. Surprised by the bold feint, Koichi desperately tried to regain the ground he lost further on Kakeru.
"Get in!" Kakeru shouted.
Despite the proximity of the Ajax goalkeeper, Kakeru struck the shot across the goalkeeper with the left foot, and into the bottom corner of the goal.
Clive Tyldesley: OHH!!! Sensational goal by Kakeru Aizawa! With less than 4 minutes plus added time to go, Manchester United have taken the lead for the 3rd time on the night when it was Ajax with the chance to score a few seconds earlier. It's now Ajax 2-3 Manchester United.
The only sound that was heard inside the Johan Cruijff Arena at that moment came from the few thousands of United supporters in the upper stands and from the United players at pitch level. In his celebration, Kakeru ran all the way towards his team's bench, and hugged Nana first before the rest of their teammates, on-field players and substitutes alike, joined in.
"WHAT A GOAL, KAKERU!" Nana exclaimed.
"COME ON!" Pog added his voice in.
"HELL YEAH, KNIGHT!" Romelu said.
"WOOHOO!" Juan also exclaimed.
"GREAT PASS, JUAN! ONE HELL OF A PASS!!" Kakeru congratulated Juan for the pass that allowed the goal to happen.
Meanwhile, the referee blew his whistle a few times, and asked the Manchester United to get back to restarting positions. However, it was almost impossible to contain the Mancunians' joy, especially since United certainly didn’t play their best game overall by letting the lead slip twice on the night.
"Great goal, Kakeru!" Noriko shouted while she jumped all around the living room as she watched the aftermath following the goal on TV.
"That was mint! I never thought Kakeru would be bold enough to pull out that move against Hibino." Sarah added. She had her right arm happily wrapped around Noriko's shoulder.
"I didn't think he would ever dare either, but he did just that. That's already 9 goals in the season for him with United."
"But did you see that defensive play before Mata's pass?" Sarah asked.
"I did. That was a great clearance by Yusuke." Noriko replied.
"Hey! Since when do you call Yusuke Saeki by his first name?"
"Er... What? Well, I..." Noriko stammered.
"Sweet! So he IS the mystery boyfriend." Sarah teased.
"He's not my boyfriend. What the hell are you talking about? I was only introduced to him through Kakeru, and then we became friends. That's all. Stop teasing me, Sarah." Noriko replied.
"OK, OK." Sarah replied before she switched to her thoughts. 'I'm not fooled on that one, Noriko. I'm sure there's something more in behind.'
Back in Amsterdam:
"I got fooled by him again. Damnit!" Koichi said to himself out loud.
As Koichi looked at the celebrating Manchester United players, his gaze met with Kakeru's in distance. Although no words were exchanged, they both knew what the message being sent across to one another was: Kakeru has risen up to Koichi's challenge, and it is now up to the latter to find a response.
"We hebben nog 5 minuten en extra tijd nog een doelpunt. Kom op! (We still have 5 minutes and added time to score another goal. Come on!)" Joël Veltman rallied his teammates.
'I will follow you 'til the end, Captain. Just like me, you never give up.' Koichi thought, feeling the inspiration from his captain's words.
At the other end, the Manchester United players also rallied themselves to their leaders' orders.
"Heads up, lads! We have 5 minutes and stoppages left. Let's finish this one off." Pog said.
"No complacency! Keep pressing hard on them." Matthias added.
"Let's do this!" Kakeru added his rally cry as well.
For the remaining time left in the match, the Manchester United players kept pushing the Ajax players as far as possible from Sergio’s goal by pressing the ball carrier relentlessly. However, that wasn't quite enough to make Ajax quit at all. In the last minute of injury time, a free kick was awarded to Ajax at a distance of 50 yards to goal.
Clive Tyldesley: This might be the last chance for Ajax to salvage something tonight. Schöne will take the long free kick.
Ajax pushed as many men forward as possible just inside the Manchester United penalty area. On the referee's signal, Lasse Schöne kicked a very high ball towards the penalty area. Yusuke and Kasper Dolberg jumped up to touch the ball, but it was the Ajax player who got the best of Yusuke this time by deflecting the ball towards the goal.
Clive Tyldesley: Dolberg! Good save by Romero, but we are not finished yet...
The shot was stopped by the Manchester United goalkeeper, but Ajax regained control of the ball. After a couple of failed passes and an interception within seconds, Ajax were still on the attack.
Clive Tyldesley: Another long ball towards Huntelaar... Köhler is with him.
With Matthias standing like a brick wall in front of Huntelaar, the latter had to shield the ball against the German. Then Huntelaar passed the ball backwards to a teammate. The player in position to shoot from outside the box was none other than Koichi.
Clive Tyldesley: A chance for Hibino...
"Watch out!" Nana shouted from the bench.
"Score!" Koichi exclaimed.
Although Koichi unleashed the canon shot at full power, Kakeru managed to throw his body in the way at the very last fraction of a second. As a result, the ball bounced off Kakeru's leg, and flew up the air before Sergio easily caught the ball.
Clive Tyldesley: Caught by Romero, but it was a match-saving block by Aizawa on Hibino.
In the next few seconds, Sergio threw the ball forward. The Manchester United players carried the ball towards the corner flag deep in Ajax's territory as they knew there would be no time for Ajax to launch another attack. Finally, the referee put an end to the contest.
PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEP!!!
Clive Tyldesley: It was a test of nerves for both clubs, and Manchester United have found a way to come away with the 3 points against a resolute Ajax team. In the end, Manchester United earned 6 points in the bank after 2 group matches.
After a few handshakes with other players, Kakeru and Koichi finally came up facing each other.
"That was a great game, Kakeru." Koichi said as he shook hands with Kakeru.
"I guess that I'm still not capable of stopping you from making a difference even after all those years. You really made big strides since the last time we faced each other as opponents."
"You improved a lot as well, Hibino. I faced my share of defenders since I became a professional, but I only saw so few out there who could put the body at the right place and at the right time to prevent so many goals like you did." Kakeru replied.
"That's nice to hear from you, Kakeru."
Then Nana and Yusuke also arrived to shake hands with Koichi.
"That was a great match you played, Hibino-san." Nana said.
"Thanks, Mishima. You also did very well. I never expected you would be as tough as you are, but I can see why you hold your ground so well against men. You have that mental strength that only the best players have."
"Thanks, Hibino-san. Speaking of tough, many big clubs in Europe will probably keep an eye on you after tonight's performance." Nana said.
"I don't know... Amsterdam has been a part of my childhood when I had my surgery. And then I spent my middle school years here. It has been my home for a number of years, so I would have a hard time parting ways even if I receive an offer to join a bigger club." Koichi replied.
"I can see what you mean. As long as you're happy, then nothing else matters." Yusuke said.
"Indeed. See you guys soon with the National Team then."
"Will do, Hibino." Kakeru replied.
"Make sure you carry that form with the National Team. It could be a big asset for us against serious opposition, especially in November." Yusuke finished.
Then Koichi left towards the players' tunnel with the remaining Ajax players. Meanwhile, Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke joined their teammates to salute the few thousands of travelling Manchester United supporters in the Johan Cruijff Arena. After the match, the team immediately left for the airport, and took the plane back to Manchester with a feeling of relief after they won their first road game of the present campaign in the UEFA Champions League.