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Friendly – England vs. Japan

As scheduled in every season, most football leagues interrupt their activities so players are released by their clubs to join their respective national teams. The most commonly known international breaks take place in early September, early October, early November, and late March. During international duty, national teams mostly play qualification matches, but can also play friendly matches in other instances.

For the Japanese National Football Team, also nicknamed "Samurai Blue", it was a period of fresh starts. Following very disappointing results in the 2014 FIFA World Cup and in 2015 AFC Asian Cup, the JFA hired Dutch-born Raimond van der Meijde to become the coach of the National Team. Under his guidance, Coach Van der Meijde started a strong revamp of the team by including players from the bunch of young talents who first became known to the Japanese public during the time when Kakeru was still a high school student. For a matter, former Yoin Academy student and now F.C. Bayern Munich defender, Toru Asuka, was named captain although he didn't reach his peak yet. Despite early criticisms, Coach Van der Meijde was never afraid to make controversial decisions, and has been vindicated so far.

After a solid share of excellent results against Asian rivals and other "low-profile" opponents, the JFA was now looking to test the National Team against stronger opposition. That test would soon take form as a match against England at Wembley Stadium.


Wednesday November 8

Aon Training Complex, Carrington, UK

For the time the Samurai Blue would stay in Britain, they established their temporary base of operations at Manchester United's training ground. After the match against England on the upcoming Friday, Japan was set to play their second match of the international break in Glasgow on the upcoming Tuesday. A total of 3 training sessions would be taken in Manchester while each of the other 2 sessions would take place at the venue on the eve of the match.

On that Wednesday morning, it was the second training session held in Manchester by Japan. The 23 Japanese players were working hard to earn starting spots.

"Oda!" former Kamakura High playmaker Ukyo Sera shouted for a pass.

In the middle of the simulated intra-squad match, Ryoma passed the ball forward to Ukyo. Then Ukyo attempted a give-and-go with Shinji Kagawa. However, Yusuke read the play, and interposed himself between Shinji's pass and Ukyo.

"Not on my watch." Yusuke said.

"Saeki!" Araki called for a pass

In response, Yusuke launched the ball forward into Araki's path. The Arsenal and ex-Enoshima playmaker was leading the counterattack. Soon, Araki came up facing Ryoma just like in the old days of the S.C. vs. F.C. at Enoshima High School.

"Come on, Araki!" Ryoma challenged his Arsenal teammate.

Araki waited to see passing options presenting themselves. The first option came on the right with former Yoin Academy winger Haruki Onimaru calling the pass. After receiving the ball, Haruki immediately passed the ball towards Kakeru. Facing defenders Maya Yoshida and Ryosuke Shima, Kakeru used well-timed body feints to shake off the veteran Yoshida. However, the 1v1 challenge against Ryosuke was proving to be anything but easy.

'Well done in getting past Yoshida, but that won't work with a more mobile defender like me.' Ryosuke thought.

'He has improved as well. I need to be clever.' Kakeru thought.

Running with the ball, Kakeru looked forward with hopes of finding an opportunity for a split second. Finally, Kakeru saw the opening as he saw Haruki blocking the goalkeeper's field of vision. As a result, Kakeru unleashed a quick and low left-footed drive around Ryosuke. The shot also surprised the goalkeeper, and ended up hitting the bottom corner of the goal.

"Nice shot, Kakeru!" Haruki congratulated Kakeru.

"Thanks."

"That was clever, Aizawa. You used me as the perfect screen." Ryosuke said.

"I'll tell you what: you really caught me off guard, Aizawa." Mikiya Tono, the Japanese goalkeeper also known as Giant Mickey, said.

"I didn't expect any less from the striker with the best current form of the Premier League." Shinji said.

"Thank you, everyone." Kakeru replied.

Shortly after, the intra-squad match came to an end. Raimond van der Meijde then called his players over for one last talk on the pitch.

"Well done, boys. That's the kind of intensity I want to see in the next 2 matches. Tomorrow, all of you will have a taste of Wembley Stadium before the match against England on Friday. I know some of you will feel all kinds of emotions when you will step on the Wembley turf. Nevertheless, remember that we are a team that keeps on fighting to the bitter end, no matter who is our opponent and no matter where we play. You got it?" Raimond said.

"YES, BOSS!" the players replied in unison.

"We have to take the 3:15 PM train from Manchester to London. So make sure you pack all your bags. Leave nothing at the Lowry even if you go back there after Friday's match."

"YES, BOSS!"

"That will be all." Raimond finished.

As the players walked away, Kakeru, Yusuke, and former Manchester United player Shinji Kagawa had a little talk together.

"How are you doing?" Kakeru asked Shinji.

"I'm doing well, thanks. I'm just enjoying the time I'm spending in what used to be my training ground for 2 seasons." Shinji replied.

"There are times I wonder if things could have been different if you managed to stay. It wasn't easy for Nana and I to see a Japanese senpai go." Kakeru said.

"Perhaps, perhaps not. As much as I wanted to live the dream for a longer period of time, I realized that I wasn't able to enjoy the game here as much as I used to do back in Germany. After all, who doesn’t want to have fun?" Shinji said.

"I sure understand that situation. I had that problem when I spent my early career in Germany, so I had to return to Japan to enjoy the game again." Yusuke replied.

"Still, the only thing that matters is that we all know where each of us truly belongs. And besides, you are both living a dream with Manchester United very well. From what I have seen, you are now regulars in the main XI there and deservedly so."

"Things are going well for us so far, I admit." Kakeru said.

"You know: there's not only hard work when it comes to having success. You also need luck to be on your side at times, and a manager who believes in you."

"You're right about that, Shinji. We'll keep on going." Yusuke said.

"See you later, guys." Shinji said.

"See you later." Kakeru replied.

After Shinji left, Kaoru and Takase joined Kakeru and Yusuke. Kaoru and Takase were the latest additions to the squad of 23 representatives.

"You two played very well today in training." Kakeru said.

"Thanks, but we would like to take the test to see how far we are in our progress." Kaoru replied.

"You held your ground very well after 2 days. Knowing Coach Van der Meijde's habits, he will find room to give you quality minutes on the pitch if you perform well in training." Yusuke said.

"I also watched some Urawa matches. You two followed the bits of advice Nana and Yusuke gave, and have become greater threats on the pitch." Kakeru added.

"Yeah, you can say that. I just had my best season in numbers of goal scored, thanks to the advice I took before the second half of the season. I'm aiming for more next year." Kaoru replied.

"I know I improved my endurance, but I still wonder why I’m training on the team as a central defender though." Takase added.

"You're the tallest guy after Giant Mickey. We are a little lacking in height at the back, so it was somewhat expected that he would try playing you as a D-man." Yusuke replied.

"And besides, Coach Van der Meijde, like many Dutch coaches, always tries to make players becoming comfortable at more than one position. For example, I didn't always play as a striker; I also learned to play like a wide forward who can beat a defender and make a good pass. Thierry Henry used to be good at both scoring and passing." Kakeru added.

"We never know if we have enough quality at the back to face certain teams, so he's preparing both you and Onimaru to take over if needed. Onimaru is talented enough at both ends of the pitch to play like a right-back." Yusuke said to Takase as well.

"Well, if that's a way to help the National Team in having better options in times of need, I can accept that."” Takase replied.

"That's right. Now that we are with the team, we’ll make sure to keep our spots." Kaoru said for him and Takase.

"That's the spirit!" Kakeru finished.

In the following hours, the Japanese National Football Team went back to the Lowry Hotel, held a team lunch, and packed their bags before they got on their way from Manchester to London on a 2-hour train ride. The team arrived at the train station in London around 5:45 PM, and then took a private coach bus to arrive at the hotel. Later in the evening, roommates Kakeru and Yusuke shared a long-distance conversation on Skype with Nana and Noriko.

"So, how was training today?" Nana asked.

"It was great. Honestly, I have a great feeling about Friday." Kakeru replied.

"Coach Van der Meijde really focuses well on details with the match against England in mind. Everything we did in practice is based on the scouting work he did on the English team." Yusuke added.

"I know it's a big test against England, but I agree with you. Hiring Van der Meijde was a very clever move by the JFA right when we started asking questions about the state of the National Team. I'm sure you will be ready for the challenge with him at the helm." Noriko said.

"Speaking of you, Noriko, who will you cheer for? After all, you're half-English and half-Japanese." Yusuke asked.

"Me? Japan always goes first before any other national team. I used to cheer for England until my early teens, but I ended up disappointed too many times with them. Besides, I truly enjoy watching Japan progress over the years both in the men's and the women's game."

"I'm glad to hear it." Yusuke said.

"Noriko will stand 110% behind Japan on Friday. You can be sure of that." Nana said.

"It's a shame that you won't come to London and attend the match at Wembley." Kakeru said.

"Even if we wanted, our clinical work would keep us from taking the train to London in time." Nana replied. "In any case, we already planned to invite Sarah home so we can all watch the game on TV."

"Tae-itoko and Murasaki will be in the stands with the Japanese contingent of supporters." Noriko added.

"Well, we promise to put up a good show for them. We'll call you again tomorrow evening. Have a good night in Manchester." Kakeru replied.

"You too, Kakeru. Happy birthday in 2 days too." Nana said.

"Good night, Yusuke." Noriko added before she blew a little kiss in front of the webcam.

Yusuke smiled at Noriko on the other side of the communication. "Have a good night too, you beauty."

The communication ended. Kakeru and Yusuke then sat down to have a little talk about the other night at the night club.

"I saw you dance with Noriko the other night. I was astonished that you two didn't take that long to click on the dance floor." Kakeru said.

"It wasn't long indeed. To be honest with you, I was like Noriko in the sense that I didn't know anything about clubbing until that night. So I was also surprised that I was so comfortable with her out there when I think about it." Yusuke replied.

"You never went out clubbing at all?"

"Never. My previous girlfriend was never really keen about going out in public with me. Everything that happened 2 nights ago just came naturally after we watched you and Nana dance for a few minutes. After we hit the dance floor and after that, it was... the best and the most intense experience I ever had with a girl for a particular span of a few hours. She is really special."

"You really are in love with her, aren't you?" Kakeru asked.

"Even though we spent only one night so far, I know things will become more intense between us for sure. She also feels the same." Yusuke replied before he let out a little laugh. "I instantly felt a connection with her from the moment we met... something I never thought it would be possible."

"I'm really happy for you, Yusuke. It's hard to believe now that I used to think you would easily find love because of your popularity in high school." Kakeru said.

"It's funny. I also thought girls would be heads over heels for you in high school when you became a household name at Enoshima."

"I was never really too good around girls other than Nana." Kakeru said.

"Well, I was never the womanizer some thought I would be either. I guess we can be both happy of who the significant other is in our respective lives after all." Yusuke replied.

"To hell with womanizing!" Kakeru finished before both men laughed out loud.


Friday November 10

England vs. Japan (International friendly match)

Wembley Stadium, London, UK

The last time Japan played a match in England was in June 2004, on which the Samurai Blue managed to hold a 1-1 draw against the team nicknamed as the "Three Lions" in the 2004 FA Summer Tournament. Michael Owen and Shinji Ohno were the scorers. Several years later, both national teams considerably changed with many young players replacing the old.

Wearing the all-blue kits, Japan sent the following starters: Mikiya Tono (#1, goalkeeper), Hiroki Sakai (#2, right-back), Toru Asuka (#5, centre-back), Ryosuke Shima (#15, centre-back), Gotoku Sakai (#3, left-back), Yusuke Saeki (#6, defensive midfielder), Haruki Onimaru (#7, right winger), Shinji Kagawa (#10, left winger), Ryuichi Araki (#11, attacking midfielder), Akira Takajo (#19, striker), and Kakeru Aizawa (#9, striker). Raimond set his players in a 4-1-2-1-2 formation.

On the other hand, England started with Joe Hart (goalkeeper), Kyle Walker (right-back), John Stones (centre-back), Gary Cahill (centre-back), Ryan Bertrand (left-back), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (midfielder), Eric Dier (midfielder), Jordan Henderson (midfielder), Dele Alli (left forward), Harry Kane (striker and captain), and Raheem Sterling (right forward). The English field players wore all-white kits.

In the players' tunnel, the Manchester United teammates wished good luck to those who were about to be their international opponents after the 8:00 PM kickoff.

"Kakeru, Yusuke." Jesse said. The Warrington-born winger was in the England squad as a substitute.

"Hey, Jess. How are you doing?" Kakeru asked in reply.

"I'm doing well. People have been talking about how easy of an opponent Japan is, but I kept telling everyone to not underestimate you guys." Jesse replied.

"If they don't take us seriously, then we will show them." Yusuke replied.

"So be it, but we won't give you an inch. Let's have a good match." Jesse said.

"Yeah, let's have a good one." Kakeru replied as he gave Jesse a high five handshake and a friendly hug.

"We'll give those people a good show." Yusuke said as he also gave Jesse a handshake.

Finally, both teams walked out of the Northern tunnel leading to the Wembley pitch under the sound of the FIFA anthem that is used for all international matches. The English field players wore their all-white kits while the Japanese field players wore the all-blue kits. With Remembrance Day coming on the following day, the English players all wore the red poppy on black armbands.

After a minute of silence customary of any tribute related to Remembrance Day, the crowd gave one round of applause before the Band of the Coldstream Guards, proudly wearing the distinctive ceremonial red coats and black bearskins, played the Japanese national anthem, Kimigayo (His Imperial Majesty's Reign). The Japanese players on the pitch, and the Japanese supporters predominantly located in the Northwest corner of the lower tier of the stadium added their voices into the melody.

Kimigayo wa
Chiyo ni yachiyo ni
Sazare-ishi no
Iwao to narite
Koke no musu made

Since England has no official national anthem, the British national anthem is treated as the English national anthem in sporting events. After the PA announcer made the announcement of the upcoming English national anthem following the Japanese anthem, the military band started playing the ever famous God Save the Queen. The band was accompanied by the tens of thousands patriotic supporters inside Wembley.

GOD SAVE OUR GRACIOUS QUEEN!
LONG LIVE OUR NOBLE QUEEN!
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!
SEND HER VICTORIOUS,
HAPPY AND GLORIOUS,
LONG TO REIGN OVER US:
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!

The English supporters then applauded at the end of the national anthem. Many people across the United Kingdom watched the broadcast of the match, including 3 young women in West Didsbury.

"I'm in inferior numbers watching this match, in my home country. That sounds weird." Sarah said, wearing her England shirt.

"Well, I'm a player for Nadeshiko Japan to begin with. Noriko already made her choice of national allegiance years ago." Nana replied. She and Noriko were wearing blue Japan shirts.

"You could have chosen England, Noriko."

"I used to cheer for England for many years, and I still wish them to do well, Sarah. However, the failed qualification for Euro 2008 and the defeat to Germany in 2010 became the straws that broke the camel's back. At the same time, I fell for Japan's men's team during the 2002 World Cup, and saw them grow on the international stage afterwards. Since 2010, I swore to support Japan before any other nation even if England stands in front, and I don't regret my decision." Noriko replied.

"And besides, Noriko saw Nadeshiko Japan win the 2011 Women's World Cup. For us in Japan, it was as emotional and powerful as it was for the English when England won the 1966 World Cup. That's also a big reason why she supports Japan's national teams so firmly now." Nana added.

"That's quite valid. Still, I expect England to win tonight." Sarah said.

"We will see. I have good hopes with this Japan team." Noriko finished.

Back to Wembley, the match started. The Japanese players were relying on ball control and quick passes in their approach. On the other hand, the England team was set to use speedy counterattacks, physical strength, and individual skills as the key elements to win the match. In that clash of styles, it wasn't long before one of the 2 teams created an opportunity.

In the 8th minute:

Clive Tyldesley: It goes towards Oxlade-Chamberlain...

Araki dashed as quickly as he could to block Alex's path, but the latter dragged the ball back onto his weaker left foot. The Englishman then took a solid shot.

Clive Tyldesley: That's a good save by Tono!

Again, Mikiya managed to stop the shot, and allowed Ryosuke to clear the ball out of bounds. However, Toru felt he had to make sure everyone's on the same page when it comes to defending against set pieces. "It's not just height and physicality on corners; they can shoot from distance as well. The marking has to be tighter at all costs."

'He is right. If we give them too much space, they will capitalize. We have to press them harder.' Yusuke thought.

And so the word was spread around between the Japanese players. Just 2 minutes after the previous chance, Japan pressed the English players in the middle of the park, and it led to a turnover in favor of the visitors.

Clive Tyldesley: Cahill... to Stones. Aizawa is pressing high at the moment.

Kakeru made quick runs towards the English defenders who were passing the ball. As a result, a pass went astray in midfield, and got intercepted by Yusuke. In a blink of an eye, Yusuke passed the ball forward to his former Kamakura High teammate Akira Takajo. Despite the presence of an English defender in his path, Akira struck a powerful left-footed shot from 20 yards.

Clive Tyldesley: Takajo has a shot at goal!

Even from 20 yards out, Akira's shot surprised everyone when it flew towards the English goal. However, the ball flew into the side netting, much to the relief of the English players and supporters inside the stadium.

Clive Tyldesley: It went just into the side netting, and there's an early warning both to Joe Hart, the goalkeeper, and to John Stones a little earlier.

"Nice attempt, Takajo." Kakeru said.

"That didn't quite go where I wanted it to go, Aizawa." Akira replied.

"I'm sure that will keep them on their toes though." Araki said.

Indeed, the last shot attempt kept the English defenders on their toes. Everyone in England knew what Akira was capable of as a striker for his club of Leicester City. He was also known as one of the most dangerous strikers in the Premier League alongside the likes of Kakeru and Patrick Jenpa. That change of momentum translated itself into better control from the Japanese.

In the 14th minute:

Japan moved the attack into England’s half of the pitch. Araki tried to chip a pass forward for Kakeru, but the ball was cleared into the opposite direction by John Stones. From there, Yusuke chested the ball down, and started another attack.

Clive Tyldesley: Saeki. He has found Kagawa on the left.

Cutting a little run towards the inside of the pitch, Shinji passed the ball forward to Akira. At the very same time, Kakeru started making his own run to draw defenders out of position. As a result, Akira had an opening...

Clive Tyldesley: Akira Takajo...

Akira used his strong ability to score from any position to strike a long-range scorcher from 35 yards. Totally surprised by the pace and the swerve of the early strike, the English goalkeeper was unable to even touch the ball as it also abruptly changed its trajectory at the last second to fly past him.

Clive Tyldesley: OH, WHAT A FANTASTIC HIT!!! SPEED OF LIGHT STRIKE FROM AKIRA TAKAJO! He has silenced Wembley!

The English supporters were stunned into silence indeed while the Japanese supporters celebrated from their position. It was the first time the Samurai Blue ever opened the score against the Three Lions on English soil. The Japanese players were ecstatic.

"Nice shot, Takajo!" Kakeru congratulated first.

"You pounded that one in big time!" Yusuke added.

"Thanks. Nice run too, Aizawa." Akira replied.

"He's right. Good thing you lured the defenders out, Kakeru." Araki said.

"Well done, guys, but don't slack off now. We keep on pressing." Toru said.

Meanwhile in West Didsbury:

"You've got to be kidding me!" Sarah couldn’t believe what she just saw on television.

"Cracking goal! Well done!" Noriko exclaimed.

"That was Gabriel Batistuta-like from 35 yards out!" Nana said.

"You could say that, Nana; I was at Old Trafford when Batistuta scored that goal. This one by Takajo was something special too." Noriko replied.

"I have to applaud him because that's a great goal, that's for sure. It's still early though, and England can still come back and win this." Sarah said, still confident to see things turn around.

From there until the halftime whistle, both teams went toe to toe. Toru's analytical organizing of the defence provided no serious opportunities for England. The Japanese midfielders continued making plays for the forwards, but the English defenders also held their ground to deny scoring opportunities as well. In the end, both teams cancelled out each other for the remaining 31 minutes of the first half. Nevertheless, it was situation that favored Japan for the particular context. At halftime, it was still: England 0-1 Japan.


During halftime, Noriko, Nana, and Sarah sat together to give their impressions on the first half of the match so far. Although Akira Takajo opened the score early in the match, the 3 women were not quite impressed by the course of events so far.

"Bar for the first quarter for an hour, I must say the first half was mundane. Still, I would take the result as it is so far." Noriko said.

"I agree with you there: I was expecting a lot more from this match. I really thought England would make better attempts to grab a goal back, but I also thought Japan would go for more after the first goal." Sarah replied.

"It's not like they haven't tried, but more like that neither side was able to impose its style on the other." Nana said.

"What do you mean?" Sarah asked.

"What are England's strengths?" Nana returned the question.

"We usually attack from the wings with pace, we use our physical advantage on set pieces, and the team is set to hit on counterattacks."

"What would you say about Japan, Noriko?"

"Good control of the ball, quick passes, and the team is set to play a possession game. I must say Toru Asuka is organizing the defence well, but what point are you trying to make, Nana?"

"Simply that after the first goal, both teams had their strengths cancelling each other out." Nana replied. "However, it was more about opponents studying each other. I expect the game to be more open, and England to attack a little more."

"They better do." Sarah said.

Then Noriko took her laptop, and checked her cousin's Instagram account for photos taken from the match live in Wembley.

"Looks like my cousin Taeko and Mai Murasaki are really enjoying the atmosphere among with fellow Japanese supporters." Noriko said.

"They sure do." Nana said as she took a look at Taeko's selfies and other photos.

"I didn't think Murasaki would have gone as far as to paint her whole face with the colors of the Japanese flag." Sarah said as she spotted a photo of Mai.

"I guess we can't take away that slightly childish side of hers after all." Nana replied.

"No one can." Noriko added.

A few minutes later, both teams walked back on the pitch ahead of the second half. Again, the 3 women in West Didsbury shouted their support for their respective teams.

"Ganbare Nippon!" Nana and Noriko shouted.

"Come on, England!" Sarah shouted.

Back to Wembley Stadium:

Clive Tyldesley: No changes have been made by the managers. The second half will get under way.

The second half started with England applying a little more pressure in the middle of the pitch. Because of that high-intensity pressure, Japan's possession game started to show weaknesses. In the 48th minute, the first signs appeared.

'There has to be an opening. Think fast!' Araki thought to himself as he looked for a player to pass to.

"Not today, Araki." Eric Dier, Araki's North London rival from Tottenham Hotspur, said as he and Jordan Henderson rushed towards the Japanese playmaker.

Clive Tyldesley: Araki has nowhere to go... Pass back to Kagawa. He's forced backwards by Henderson.

Shinji was forced to pass the ball across the halfway line towards Gotoku. At that moment, the Japanese defender made a mistake as he precipitated his forward pass right on Raheem's shin pads. As a result, England counterattacked.

Clive Tyldesley: Gotoku Sakai against the shins of Raheem Sterling. Here's Oxlade-Chamberlain...

England sent players forward on an odd-man rush. Leading the counterattack, Alex ran a few yards ahead with the ball before he passed it to the left where Dele was dashing towards the Japanese penalty area.

Clive Tyldesley: Now, Dele Alli can move towards the Japanese goal...

Entering the Japanese penalty area, it became a 1v1 duel between Toru and Dele. The Englishman tried to mesmerize Toru with some dazzling footwork, but the Japanese captain stood in the way on every move. Despite the presence of several white shirts in the area, Dele decided to cut towards the inside, and take a shot.

Clive Tyldesley: Going for goal himself... blocked by Asuka. It is a corner for England.

Toru successfully deflected the ball out of danger when his team was in the ropes. However, the pro-England supporters inside Wembley roared their voices out. They felt a goal would come soon. Ryan Bertrand was set to take the corner kick.

PEEP!

Instead of looking for either John or Gary, who were respectively covered by Yusuke and Toru, Ryan only had one thing in mind: aim the ball towards Harry at the near post. Despite Ryosuke's efforts to keep pace with Harry, the difference in height clearly favored the Englishman.

Clive Tyldesley: Into HARRY KANE!!!

Mikiya was totally caught by surprise by Harry's header shot, and could do very little to stop it from hitting the corner of the goal. Suddenly, Wembley came alive with England equalizing early in the second half.

Clive Tyldesley: A captain's goal for Harry Kane! Wembley has come alive on a goal from the head of Harry Kane. 1-1!

While the English players celebrated, the Japanese players were still trying to understand what just happened.

"What was that? Who was watching Harry Kane?" Akira asked.

"I let him slip. Sorry, guys." Ryosuke replied.

"I thought you're supposed to make life difficult for him." Akira reprimanded.

"That was a mistake I made. I should have known Shima would have a hard time dealing with Kane physically on corners. Next time, someone taller will have to mark him." Toru said. "It's only 1-1. We can still fight back and win this."

"Keep the focus, guys." Yusuke added to the rally cry.

However, most of the Japanese players were still in shock after conceding the equalizer so early in the second half. Feeling the need to change something in his team's approach, Raimond ordered Michirou Takase, Ryoma Oda, and Koichi Hibino to get warmed up. However, England came back to the attack just 2 minutes after the equalizing goal.

In the 50th minute:

Clive Tyldesley: Here's Ryan Bertrand. Henderson gets the ball from him...

After a failed attempt by Japan to attack the English goal, Joe Hart kicked a long pass towards Ryan. Then Ryan passed the ball to Jordan, who then spotted Dele making a quick run behind the Japanese right-back, Hiroki Sakai.

Clive Tyldesley: Dele Alli is through! He's onside. Can he go all the way?

Dele used his speed to make most of the distance between himself and the Japanese goal. However, he also knew Hiroki was closing the gap in a desperate effort to deny the shot inside the penalty area. So Dele made one body feint to eliminate Hiroki from the equation, and turned to take a shot with his right foot despite Toru's intervention.

Clive Tyldesley: Good turn by Dele Alli! It’s saved by Tono...

Mikiya stopped the shot from point blank range, but was put off balance. The rebound then bounced towards Harry, who was left unmarked in the middle of the confusion. Only one outcome came out of that.

Clive Tyldesley: It goes back to HARRY KANE! IT'S IN!!

In a matter of 2 minutes, England scored twice to take the lead, sending the overwhelming majority inside Wembley Stadium into euphoria. For the Samurai Blue, it was the script of nightmares unfolding before them.

Clive Tyldesley: THE CAPTAIN HAS SCORED HIS SECOND GOAL IN 2 MINUTES! And suddenly, England take the lead over Japan for the first time in the night! There's no stopping Harry Kane in this second half.

Meanwhile in West Disbury:

"Woohoo! What did I tell you? England have turned things around with a bang!" Sarah exclaimed.

"Seriously, the defenders are bloody shite. What the hell are they doing?" Noriko asked out loud, throwing her palm in her face in disbelief.

"Coach Van der Meijde will certainly not stand still. For all his talent, Ryosuke Shima can't play as a centre-back against that kind of opposition any more. I wouldn't be surprised if he moves to the right-back position while both full-backs get replaced." Nana said.

"Aye. The coach has been very patient with the full-backs, but they are just not good enough for this kind of challenge." Noriko replied.

"No matter what Van der Meijde does, I don't think it will stop England with Harry Kane on his way to score a hat-trick." Sarah said.

"Don't count out Japan just yet, Sarah. Remember that Koichi Hibino started on the bench because he'll probably start against Scotland. His performance against United in the Champions League is something to keep in mind." Noriko said.

"And if Van der Meijde thinks what I think, there's also another trump card he can use to revamp the defence." Nana finished.

Back to Wembley:

"Damn!" Araki cursed.

"Stay focused! We can still catch this one up." Yusuke tried to rally his teammates.

"It's no time to be afraid anymore. Let's strike back at them!" Kakeru added.

"Right! Let's regain control of the match and score the next one, one goal at the time." Toru finished.

'I hope you have something in mind, Coach. We are in serious need of help on the pitch.' Kakeru thought.

As Nana predicted and as Kakeru hoped, Raimond replaced Hiroki Sakai, Gotoku Sakai, and Shinji Kagawa with Koichi Hibino, Michirou Takase, and Ryoma Oda in the 54th minute. While Takase and Koichi took place in the left half of the back 4, Ryosuke moved into the right-back position. Ryoma was brought on to add some steel in a midfield 3 alongside Yusuke and Araki, and to add the ability to start counterattacks quicker. Meanwhile, Kakeru, Akira, and Haruki remained on the field as Japan's front 3. The next step for Japan was to contain England's attacks in order to regain some momentum. However, that was easier said than done.

In the 56th minute:

Clive Tyldesley: Dier seeking out Dele Alli...

Eric Dier attempted a long diagonal ball towards Dele on the left flank and deep in Japanese territory, but Ryosuke headed the ball back towards Araki. Nevertheless, a bad first touch from Araki allowed England to retrieve the ball through Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Clive Tyldesley: Oxlade-Chamberlain has the ball... back to Dele Alli.

Instead of standing in his usual corridor on the left wing, Dele made an inside turn to the right, and put forward a through ball for Raheem down the other side of the Japanese penalty area. Despite Koichi’s attempt to cut the pass, the ball still reached Raheem, who was then facing the imposing Takase.

Clive Tyldesley: In towards Raheem Sterling...

Looking for a shooting option, Raheem found none with Takase standing his ground in front of him. At the same time, Koichi and Yusuke arrived to tighten the space upon the Manchester City player. Nevertheless, Raheem managed to pass the ball back towards the front of the Japanese penalty area.

"WATCH OUT!" Yusuke shouted.

Charging to take a one-timer shot was Jordan Henderson. Despite Ryoma's desperate but late dash, Jordan struck a powerful shot that was about to hit the top corner. Fortunately for Japan though, Mikiya was there to make the stop.

Clive Tyldesley: It's Henderson! What a stop by Tono!!!

Mikiya stretched his hand, and perfectly got his hand on the shot to deflect the ball behind. However, England got a corner kick as a result. Without further waiting, both teams moved into positions for the corner kick.

Clive Tyldesley: Corner for England...

This time, Ryan aimed for Gary at the near post. The contact Gary made with the ball was clean, and the shot flew towards an open part of the goal. It forced Mikiya to stretch his hand to make the save. However, the ball was rolling very slowly towards Harry.

Clive Tyldesley: Oh, the goalkeeper parried... Harry Kane...

At the moment Harry was about to shoot, Takase used his very long legs to have enough of a touch to disrupt any attempt. In the follow-up contact with Takase, Harry went down. The England supporters and players were shouting for a penalty, but the referee denied the call. In the following split second, Toru cleared the ball well far away and out of danger.

Clive Tyldesley: He couldn't quite make it. Takase did just enough against Harry Kane. Mikiya Tono turned it away, but it was a real chance for England.

"Well done, Takase." Toru congratulated his new teammate in central defence.

"Thanks, Good thing I had long legs there." Takase replied.

"It's a good thing, you're right. What's better is that you stuck by him like a shadow. This guy is hard to mark." Yusuke said.

Meanwhile, Kakeru, Araki, Haruki, and Akira were talking about the attacking approach.

"Keep your eyes peeled, Araki! We can't afford that kind of turnover." Akira said, obviously angry at how sloppy Araki's game was the reason why England had the last 2 scoring chances.

"I don't know what’s going on today, but I know I have to be better." Araki replied.

"It's no use over-complicating things. Just play to your strengths, and get the ball to the hot spots." Kakeru replied.

"Aizawa's right: give us something to work with. You're the link between the defensive players and the forwards, and we need you to be strong." Haruki added.

Araki took a few seconds to think about everything that was just said before he replied: "Fine. You make the runs, and open up the gaps for me. That ball, you will get it."

"Let's do this, Araki!" Kakeru said.

Millions of English supporters across the United Kingdom were still in disbelief at the 2 chances the Lions failed to convert, including Sarah in West Didsbury.

"Bloody hell! It should be 3-1 by now!" Sarah exclaimed.

"This is where Takase's long reach really helped. We barely escaped going behind by 2 goals." Noriko replied.

"What I'm mostly concerned is how bad Araki has been today so far. It's because of a bad first touch from him if England got the last 2 scoring chances." Nana said.

"You think Van der Meijde might call Ukyo Sera to replace him?" Noriko asked.

"That's a possibility, but this is where Araki can show that strength of character when people think he's done and buried for the match. It's all up to him now." Nana replied.

Since the start of the second half, England acted by far as the dominant force on the pitch. However as many punches they were taking, the Japanese players knew it only took one well-placed punch to put the game on terms while hurting the pride of the English team as well. Sooner than anyone would expect it, the Samurai Blue had their chance.

In the 61st minute:

Clive Tyldesley: Ryoma Oda... Saeki...

Yusuke ran with the ball a few yards into the English half of the pitch when he spotted Koichi on his left for a pass. The Japanese left-back from Ajax then walked ahead, and attempted a give-and-go with Kakeru. However, Alex fouled Koichi 15 yards away from the English penalty area when the give-and-go was about to create something interesting.

Clive Tyldesley: Hibino is fouled by Oxlade-Chamberlain... They play it quickly.

After the referee called the foul, Koichi took a chance by making a quick pass of a free kick towards Araki. Without any hesitation, Araki took advantage of the confusion in the English camp to hit a very good shot that surprised Joe when it flew... into the crossbar.

Clive Tyldesley: Araki... off the crossbar. Aizawa's in...

The rebound was retrieved by Kakeru inside the English penalty area, but was also pressed by English defender John Stones. After shaking off the defender with a nice turn, Kakeru took the shot on goal. However, John's intervention gave Joe enough time to stand up and be in a position to make a desperate arm-stretching save.

Clive Tyldesley: Oh, that's a fantastic save by Joe Hart! Point blank save by Hart, and Japan have a corner kick.

At the same time the English players were already moving into defensive positions, the Japanese players elaborated their own attacking strategy.

"Aizawa, you make a run at the near post to lure a defender out." Toru said.

"I will do it." Kakeru replied.

"Takase, Oda, Takajo, you create havoc in the middle."

"Got it, Captain." the 3 players replied.

After Ryoma and Akira left towards their assigned positions, Toru asked Takase to stay for a few more instructions.

"If you can get to the ball and have a clean shot, that's fine. But if they have players on you, I'll sneak at the far post. If that happens, can you get the ball in that direction?" Toru asked.

"I can."

"OK, go!" Toru finished.

Meanwhile, Kakeru already took place to his assigned position. However, Ryan Bertrand was also standing in the area as Kakeru's shadow.

Clive Tyldesley: Ryuichi Araki will take this corner.

PEEP!

Araki kicked the ball towards the pack of players. After Kakeru started his own run to lure Ryan out, Akira and Ryoma were also making their runs to push the defenders back. The ball swerved in mid-air towards Takase.

'Asuka-san is right: they are sending 2 players towards me. Here it goes then.' Takase thought.

When Takase jumped up, he only brushed the ball with the top of his head instead of going for a shot. As a result, the ball continued dipping towards the far post. As it was planned, Toru made a perfect run into an open space to shoot from point blank. This time, the English defenders and goalkeeper had no chance of stopping it.

Clive Tyldesley: It goes off Takase, and it's in! A captain's goal for Toru Asuka, he has equalized for Japan after a little more than an hour gone. It's 2-2.

"Awesome!" Yusuke exclaimed.

"Nice goal, Captain!" Kakeru said.

"This time, we go get the next goal. Let's go!" Toru replied after he picked up the ball from the back of the net. "Nice header pass, Takase."

"Thanks, Captain." Takase replied.

"Well done, big guy! Well done!" Araki congratulated his old Enoshima teammate.

"We can go on to win this now." Kakeru said.

Inside Wembley, the contingent of Japanese supporters at the Northwest corner of the stadium was going wild after they just witnessed the goal only a few dozens of yards in front of their position. In that crowd were Mai and Taeko.

"Beautiful goal, Asuka-san!" Taeko shouted.

"That was a great pass by the beanpole guy as well, exactly like he used to do in training for me." Mai said.

"Still calling him with that ridiculous nickname?"

"Old habits die hard, Tae-san." Mai replied. "Still, he made a nice pass by deflecting the ball towards Asuka-san rather than shooting it himself."

"I'm sure that was done on purpose." Taeko finished.

Meanwhile in West Didsbury, Taeko's opinion was also shared by Nana:

"That was perfectly executed! Ganbare Nippon!” Noriko exclaimed.

"I'm sure Asuka-san told Takase to get that ball at the far post if a direct header was difficult. That's what he probably said just before the corner there." Nana watched the TV replay where Toru was talking one-on-one with Takase. "Well done, Takase!"

"Rubbish man-marking! How can they let the big guy do as he wants while leaving Toru Asuka unmarked?" an unhappy Sarah asked.

"I told you Japan can't be counted out at all. They have enough skills, firepower, and tactical discipline to make anyone pay." Noriko replied.

"Right now, it's anyone's game. The next team to score might well win this one." Nana finished.

And Nana was right: the goal Toru scored shattered most of the extra swagger England had built up since the beginning of the second half. The entire Wembley crowd knew then that any of the opposing sides could win or lose the contest. From that point on, the Samurai Blue started regaining confidence, and imposed their tempo upon the Three Lions.


In the stretch of 15 minutes that followed Toru's goal, England made 3 changes: Kieran Trippier, Theo Walcott, and Aaron Cresswell replaced Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling, and Ryan Bertrand respectively. Meanwhile, Japan still maintained the same 11 players on the pitch although teams are allowed to have more than 3 substitutions in international friendly matches.

The play itself became a little bit patchy although Japan regained most of ball control since. There were not many serious scoring opportunities from either side, but that was about to considerably change.

In the 76th minute:

Clive Tyldesley: Oda... passes back to Asuka, then forward to Araki.

In a string of quick passes in succession, Japan started their attack from the middle of the pitch. Araki ran a few yards ahead with the ball.

"Araki!" Haruki shouted for a pass.

Without further delay, Araki passed the ball to Haruki. Charging down the wing, the former Yoin winger noticed that Aaron Cresswell was conceding some space between both of them. It was a perfect invitation for Haruki to cross the ball inside the English penalty area, where Akira was making his way between 2 defenders. The long aerial ball was accurate...

Clive Tyldesley: Onimaru with the cross for TAKAJO!

Jumping in the air, Akira surprised everyone when he made contact with the ball with his head. Unfortunately, the headed shot struck the outside of the goal post, and bounced out for a goal kick, much to the massive relief of the English supporters.

Clive Tyldesley: He clipped the outside of the post and out. Japan came close of re-taking the lead.

"Damn!" Akira cursed.

"Good attempt, Takajo. Good attempt." Kakeru tried to cheer his fellow striker up.

"Nice pass, Haruki." Toru acknowledged the quality of the pass made by his friend and former Yoin teammate.

"Thanks, Captain." Haruki replied.

"We can do this. Let's keep attacking hard." Yusuke rallied his teammates.

And the rally cry was heard as Japan came back with another good chance in the 79th minute.

Clive Tyldesley: Saeki... Hibino... pushes forward for Takajo. No flag.

Timing his run well, Akira beat the offside trap. However, Koichi's pass was rolling on the lateral edge of England's penalty area instead of cutting through to create a more direct breakaway threat on goal. To make things worse, Akira had to deal with Kieran Trippier.

Clive Tyldesley: Takajo against Trippier... skips past Trippier...

Akira managed to shake off Kieran, and then cut his run with the ball inside the penalty area. Spotting Kakeru standing on the penalty spot, Akira tried to pass the ball towards him... only to be stop by John Stones.

Clive Tyldesley: Blocked by Stones... back to Hibino.

Koichi retrieved the ball at the edge of the penalty area, and entered in a 1v1 situation against Kieran. Koichi then waited and waited to find a passing option, but then dashed forward to lose Kieran. Arriving right before the goal line, Koichi crossed the ball towards the far post where Haruki was lurking.

Clive Tyldesley: The cross goes towards Onimaru... Aizawa!

Haruki headed the ball back towards the middle for Kakeru, who then headed the ball towards the English goal from point blank. Unfortunately for Japan once more, the shot was not converted into a goal because Joe made a reflex save.

Clive Tyldesley: Terrific save by Joe Hart again! Cleared away by Cahill.

Kakeru still held his hands on his head in disbelief, and cursed out loud: "I should have scored that, shit!"

"That's okay, Aizawa. You will have it next time." Haruki cheered Kakeru up, who responded with a thumbs-up sign.

After that moment, the coach of the England team replaced Jordan Henderson with West Bromwich Albion representative Jake Livermore. Japan responded by sending veteran defender Maya Yoshida to replace a tired Ryosuke. However, England started counterattacking and pushing inside the Japanese half a little more often.

In the 84th minute:

The play restarted with a throw-in for England. Dele threw the ball for Eric, who then completed the quick give-and-go with Dele.

Clive Tyldesley: Great run by Dele Alli past Yoshida... He whips it in...

Dele blasted a long cross across the penalty area for Theo. The pass was accurate and perfectly put on a silver plate for Theo to shoot it past Mikiya. As the English supporters and players celebrated, however, the whistle was blown to cut the celebrations short.

Clive Tyldesley: The linesman's flag is up. Walcott's goal won't count. Theo Walcott was just a fraction offside when Dele Alli sent a fantastic ball at the far post. It's still 2-2.

While a few English players protested to no avail, the Japanese defenders were quite happy with their own effort.

"Nicely done, guys." Toru congratulated his fellow defenders.

"Good thing you gave us the sign, Captain." Koichi replied.

"I thought for a second that letting him slip was the wrong thing to do." Takase said.

"That's a normal feeling when you don't quite have the experience, but you did it well." Toru replied.

Meanwhile, Kakeru was still thinking about how tight was the play that led to a favorable offside call: 'That was way too close for comfort. One mistake from one side and the next goal is almost certain to win the match.'

And Kakeru was right as the match was going to find its dramatic climax at the 89th minute.

Clive Tyldesley: Now Trippier is running down the wing.

English full-back Kieran Trippier ran with the ball deep in Japanese territory before he confronted Koichi. Having nowhere to go, Kieran dragged the ball back a little before he crossed the ball into the Japanese penalty area. Theo was the intended recipient, but opted to let the ball go past him into Harry's feet.

Clive Tyldesley: It's past Walcott, into Harry Kane...

Having his back to the Japanese goal while man-marked by Toru, Harry made a back pass outside the penalty area for Dele.

"Shit! Stop him!" Yusuke shouted.

Ryoma rushed towards Dele in an attempt to block the shot. However, Dele avoided Ryoma's tackle attempt by faking the shot with his left foot before angling his body to the right for a right-footed strike. Yusuke also tried to close the gap, but the shot flew past him.

Clive Tyldesley: ...and Dele Alli! Oh, it's a good save!

The shot was curling towards the bottom corner at Mikiya's right, but the tall Japanese goalkeeper managed to deflect the ball out in full stretch. Nevertheless, Japan conceded a corner kick to England once again, and the majority of the Wembley attendance roared for the home team to grab the next goal.

"Well done, Giant Mickey!" Toru congratulated Mikiya.

"Fine margins again. We have to stop this." Mikiya replied.

"Make sure no white shirt gets through, guys. Let's defend this." Toru rallied his teammates.

Clive Tyldesley: In the 89th minute, you have to feel the next goal will win the match. Can England score here?

PEEP!

Ross struck the ball so it would reach the middle of the pack of players. However, Takase stood tallest as he headed the ball just outside of the penalty area. At that point, Yusuke and Jake Livermore were running from opposite directions to reach the loose ball.

'I will get this ball! I have to!' Yusuke thought.

Sprinting as if his life depended on it, Yusuke managed to reach the ball, and slipped it between Jake Livermore's legs. With so many English players forward, the home side was vulnerable to a quick Japanese counterattack.

Clive Tyldesley: Saeki runs past Livermore. Japan can hit on the break here.

With lots of space, Kakeru and Yusuke in support up front, and only 3 English defenders in front of him, Yusuke led the charge until he crossed the halfway line. At the very instant Yusuke saw Kakeru entering the big gap between 2 English defenders, the next step was as clear as daylight.

"Araki!"

Clive Tyldesley: Saeki... it's towards Araki...

Following the pass from Yusuke to Araki, the former Enoshima High maestro lured a defender out of position, and immediately flicked the killer pass into Kakeru's path. The Japanese Knight was on a clear breakaway towards the English goal.

Clive Tyldesley: Aizawa has gone through. No flag! KAKERU AIZAWA!!

With a disconcerting ease, Kakeru sent Joe diving the wrong way as the striker took a shot that went past the last English line of defence and into the back of the net. Suddenly, Wembley was stunned into total silence except for the contingent of Japanese supporters.

Clive Tyldesley: Kakeru Aizawa has written another dramatic moment at Wembley as he did in the Community Shield in August! On his birthday, the top marksman in the Premier League has given Japan a 3-2 lead with a little more than a minute of normal time left!

Immediately after the goal, Kakeru ran towards the nearby section where the Japanese supporters were located, and celebrated his goal with a front flip. In the following seconds, Kakeru was mobbed and congratulated by his teammates for what could soon turn out to be a moment of history for Japanese football.

Clive Tyldesley: Great moment in front of the Japanese fans for the Japanese players. They almost conceded a goal at the other end. That's their response: wonderful effort on the counterattack finished off by Kakeru Aizawa.

Meanwhile in West Didsbury:

"YATTA! (WE DID IT!)" Nana and Noriko exclaimed altogether.

"GET IN!" Noriko added to the shout.

"WELL DONE, KAKERU!" Nana shouted as well.

"No, I don't believe it. I just don't believe it!" a shocked Sarah said.

"Now that's what I call turning the tables around. That was a great nutmeg and a great run by Yusuke right there!" Noriko said as she saw the replay on TV.

"He started the counterattack by picking up the loose ball, and then charged forward alongside Kakeru and Araki. The rest was easy to predict. We really ripped a page from England's playbook on counterattacks there." Nana replied.

"Japan beating England at Wembley... How is that possible?" Sarah said.

"Well, our men's team did that in France and in Belgium a few years ago. That's progress." Nana replied.

Back to Wembley, in the stands:

"NICE GOAL, KAKERUCCHI!" Mai shouted.

"One of the best counterattacks I have seen in years in both the men's and the women's game." Taeko said.

"Yeah, Saeki-kun really took the ball well. That goal would not have been possible without him." Mai said.

"I look at the English players' body language. They won't be able to come back after this." Taeko finished.

Indeed, Kakeru's goal knocked the stuffing out of the English players and supporters alike. From then until the very last second of injury time, English attacks lacked that earlier confidence. Hence it was easier for the Japanese defenders to do their job. Finally, the Samurai Blue wrote history when the final whistle was blown.

PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEP!!!

Clive Tyldesley: It was a spectacular match between the 2 teams with plenty of dramatic moments. It was competitive to the very end, but Japan prevailed over England in the last stages of normal time through Kakeru Aizawa. It's a historical victory for Japan as they defeat England for the first time ever, and at Wembley of all places.

After shaking a few hands with the English players, the Japanese players could finally celebrate among themselves on the Wembley pitch and in front of their supporters. Smiles all around, everyone associated with the Japanese National Football Team knew how huge that victory was, even in the context of a friendly match.

In West Didsbury:

"Woo hoo! History has been made!" Nana exclaimed.

"Our boyfriends are real heroes tonight." Noriko said as she hugged Nana in celebration.

"Well... I have to say Japan truly deserved to win tonight. They really are a very solid side now, congratulations." Sarah said.

"Thanks, Sarah. England were not bad at all; they could have won this as well." Nana replied.

"Yeah, but we sure need to be more clinical when it matters. We have to find ways to kill the game off next time."

"It will come." Noriko replied. "Oh, and by the way, I almost forgot something."

"What is it?" Sarah asked.

"Wait here for a few seconds." Noriko replied before she went upstairs. A few seconds later, Noriko came back carrying the black tie-halter top she wore the other night when she and Yusuke danced together. "I almost forgot to give you back the top I borrowed on the other night."

"Since the top is now part of such a precious memory for life, it's more appropriate that you keep it for good. After all, it won't be the only time you and Yusuke will enjoy dancing at a club." Sarah replied.

"You really mean it?"

"Of course I do, Noriko. It's my gift to you as my friend." Sarah said.

"Thank you a lot, my friend." Noriko replied.

"It really fits you well, Noriko. It was destined to be yours since you wore it for the first time." Nana said.

"Thanks, Nana."

A little later in the evening, the Japanese team was about to leave Wembley on the way to the airport where they would take the plane for Manchester. Kakeru received a call from Nana on his smartphone before getting on the bus.

"Hello, Nana."

"Hi, Kakeru. We watched the game. That was great, especially with you scoring the winner."

"Yeah, it was competitive. I'm really happy that I scored that goal, but I don't feel like being the Japanese hero the media want to make. You should have seen them after the match." Kakeru said.

"Well, you scored the big goal on your birthday after all." Nana replied.

"In fact, the real hero on the play was Yusuke. He was the one who started it all on the counterattack." Kakeru replied. "Noriko has every right to be proud of Yusuke."

"I'm sure she is." Nana replied as she watched Noriko texting Yusuke.

Seconds later, Yusuke received the text message from Noriko that said: "That winning goal is all thanks to you. You're the real hero for Japan. –XXX Noriko."

Yusuke then smiled at the message before he wrote his reply: "Thank you, Noriko. Being your hero is already more than enough for me. Talk to you later. –Yusuke."

Kakeru looked at Yusuke with a smile before he talked back to Nana on the phone: "I think Yusuke just acknowledged the sentiment from his best fan."

A New Couple :Previous Chapter«Home Page»Next Chapter: Friendly - Scotland vs. Japan

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