Start of Pre-Season
Sunday July 22
For most people in Japan, it was officially summer vacation since Friday ended. On the first Sunday of the summer break, Kakeru, his uncle Shigeru, and Nana moved on their way together for a 95-minute drive from Tokyo to Kamakura for a family dinner at the good old Aizawas' House. Knowing they must join the team in Yokohama later in the same evening, Kakeru and Nana also had their luggage in the trunk of the car.
"I'm so happy to be going back home. It feels like it was ages ago since the last time I was in my hometown, especially with the clinical clerkship running." Kakeru said as he was driving the Toyota Aqua on the highway going straight south.
"Same for me, Kakeru-kun. I love doing my part as the owner of the apartment building helping students to find a place to live in Tokyo, but I also sometimes miss the town where I was born." Shigeru said as he was sitting on the passengers' backseat behind Kakeru.
"What made you choose to live in Tokyo when there are also students in Kamakura who'd love to have a landlord like you, Uncle Shigeru?"
"Oh, well… For some reason, I find more inspiration in Tokyo for my part-time job as a freelance writer than in Kamakura. It's probably the beauty of the beaches and the sunsets that is a big distraction for me; I can't take my eyes off from them."
"That's a good point." Kakeru replied between chuckles.
"Beaches and beautiful sunsets… That's very reminiscent of our days in high school." Nana said.
"By the way, Nana-chan, I'm trying to write a story about a young woman finding her way in a men's world, but I don't know enough about the psychology of a woman in such conditions. Since I'm drawing a parallel with your own experience in soccer, I was wondering how you got through hardships with the U-21s. It must have been difficult at first with some players being jealous of your skills." Shigeru asked.
"Skills and talent mostly did the talk for me. It was a little hard at first when some of the fellow U-21s played rough, but I never conceded an inch to those who wanted to see me out. I even had to play their game at times to show how tough I am, but no one ever tried anything silly again when they saw my angry self."
"Nana is someone you wouldn't mess around with when she’s angry. My friend Kouta knows a lot about it since middle school." Kakeru added.
"But did you have a few moments when you came close to having a mental breakdown, Nana-chan?"
Nana hesitated for a moment before she replied. "A few times, but Kakeru helped me a lot by giving some emotional support... so as a number of friends from the first team, the coaching staff, and, of course, Noriko. Having reliable allies who will stand by no matter what was all I needed to help me getting through."
"Ah, I see. It makes quite a basis for a nice story." Shigeru said.
"And long it may continue." Kakeru added.
For just a few more minutes, the drive continued into the residential areas of Kamakura. Finally, everyone arrived at the Aizawas' House, and Kakeru rang the doorbell before Mrs. Aizawa opened the door.
"Good evening, Mom." Kakeru replied with a smile as he embraced his mother.
"It has been quite some time since we last saw you." Mrs. Aizawa said before she turned towards Nana. "You too, Nana-chan. How long has it been?"
"Just too long because of last year's pre-season being played abroad, then the entire season going by, and then the clinical clerkship taking most of our time." Nana replied.
"Hi, Kake-nii! Nana-nee!" Mito, now also a college student, greeted.
"Mito! You made it here too." Kakeru replied as he and Nana also embraced Mito.
"I'm always in to celebrate the beginning of the summer break with the whole family, Kake-nii."
"It has been quite a long time, people. How have you been, Shigeru?" M. Aizawa asked as he finally came in to greet everyone.
"I'm doing well, thanks. When Kakeru-kun told me about tonight, I was not going to say no, Nii-chan." Shigeru replied.
Arriving just behind Kakeru and co. were Nana's parents. The Mishimas were also invited for the evening.
"It looks like we just arrived in time." Mrs. Mishima said.
"Mom! Dad!" Nana exclaimed before she ran into her parents' arms.
"Look at you, Nana. You look great!" Mrs. Mishima said.
"You look ready to go after big glory this year, Nana." M. Mishima added.
"We can't wait to see some action soon." Nana replied.
"Well, come in, everyone. Let's enjoy the evening!" Mrs. Aizawa finished before everyone moved in for the dinner night.
An hour and a half went by as everyone reminisced past experiences during dinner. It was a very enjoyable evening for both families gathering together for one last time before Kakeru and Nana would go back to club duty with Manchester United on the following day.
"I hope our 2 lovebirds here are not too much for you to handle, Shigeru-san." Mrs. Aizawa said as she referred to Kakeru and Nana.
"No need to worry. I've seen a lot worse among other residents." Shigeru replied before Kakeru and Nana's parents laughed. "Kakeru-kun and Nana-chan take good care of the room when they live there in the summer, so I keep the room clean with the same amount of care when they’re abroad."
"Still, I wonder when you'll buy a new and bigger house just for the two of you, Kakeru and Nana-chan. You know... with the wedding coming next year." M. Aizawa asked.
"Not just yet. We have medical school, the upcoming season, and a lot more, at least in my case, to think about first before buying a new house. But I promise this day will come." Kakeru replied.
"Well, it's time for a toast. To the day you'll unite your destinies before the priest next summer. May the days ahead be filled with plenty of joy and success." Mrs. Mishima raised her cup of sake.
"Kanpai! (Cheers!)" everyone raised their cups for the drink.
Then the evening carried on until the doorbell rang around 9:45 PM. Mrs. Aizawa went to open the door, and in the frame stood Miwa Shibata.
"Good evening, Aizawa-san." Miwa said.
"Shibata-san, are you in for a drink? I can serve you something if you want, but it's a shame you missed the curry. We could have celebrated your success in extending our kids' contracts at the same time."
"Thanks, but work kept me out tonight, unfortunately." Miwa replied. "I don't want to crash your party, but Kakeru and Nana have to be on their way soon. The Manchester United team already arrived in Yokohama, and M. Butler requests both Kakeru-kun and Nana-chan to join the team at the hotel in Yokohama before 11:00 PM. Since I didn't drink anything alcoholic, I'll drive them from here to Yokohama."
"I see. It's a good thing you thought about it." Mrs. Aizawa replied before she turned towards Kakeru and Nana. "Your lift has arrived, you two."
"I'd suggest you two to get changed into your formal wear. The destination is Minato Mirai." Miwa said.
"It won't take us long, Miwa-san." Kakeru replied.
Nearly 10 minutes later, Kakeru and Nana got changed into their Paul Smith tailor-made suits. Each suit included a necktie with the club's colors, a white shirt, black trousers, and a black jacket with Manchester's coat of arms embroidered on the left chest pocket. Mrs. Aizawa and Mrs. Mishima were particularly fond of the uniform worn by their 2 gifted children.
Before Kakeru and Nana were set to leave, both took a moment in front of the altar in Suguru's room on the second floor.
"What do you think, Nii-chan? This is the Manchester United formal wear. It's the first time I'm showing this uniform to you." Kakeru spoke in front of the altar where Suguru's picture was standing.
"Kakeru and I will join the team in Yokohama together tonight. How do we look, Suguru-san?" Nana added.
After a few seconds of silence, Kakeru said: "Well, we're heading out. Please watch over us for the new season, Nii-chan."
"See you later." Nana finished.
Finally, Kakeru and Nana walked down the stairs. Their relatives were waiting by the entrance door to see the departure.
"Well, I guess it's time to say goodbye then." Kakeru said.
"It was a very good evening. Thanks for putting it up, auntie." Nana said to Mrs. Aizawa.
"Thank you, Nana-chan."
Then Kakeru and Nana took a few moments to hug their parents one last time before they bid goodbye to Mito.
"I hope you'll find a nice boyfriend before next summer." Kakeru said.
"If you find one, just make sure he loves you for who you are... just like us. Nothing else matters." Nana added.
"Being a celebrity's sister doesn't make it easy to find the right boyfriend who's interested in me for the right reasons, but I'll do my best. Thanks for the advice." Mito replied as she hugged both Kakeru and Nana goodbye.
Kakeru then turned towards his uncle one last time. "Please take good care of the Aqua, Uncle Shigeru. I love this little car."
"I promise, Kakeru-kun. Good luck!" Shigeru finished.
Kakeru and Nana loaded their luggage in the trunk of Miwa's car. Finally, the 2 players and their agent were on their way towards Yokohama. From Kamakura to Yokohama's Minato Mirai 21 district, the drive usually takes between 40 and 45 minutes, hence why Miwa came to pick Kakeru and Nana up. Finally, Miwa's car arrived at the 5-star hotel located in Minato Mirai, where the Manchester United team came to spend the next 3 nights in the city.
"Thanks for the ride, Miwa-san. Can you get tickets for our families ahead of the game against Marinos?" Kakeru asked.
"I already took care of that, Kakeru-kun. They will enjoy this moment, so just focus on getting on that pitch for them on Wednesday." Miwa replied with a wink.
"Sure will." Nana finished.
Carrying their own luggage, Kakeru and Nana walked by a few photojournalists who stood late outside of the hotel to take pictures of the 2 young Japanese footballers arriving. Once inside the much quieter hotel's lobby, Kakeru and Nana met 2 familiar figures waiting for them: Yusuke Saeki and manager Andrew Butler.
"Yusuke!" Kakeru and Nana exclaimed.
"Hi, you two! How have you been?" Yusuke asked.
"We're doing great, thanks. We're ready to get back into action." Kakeru replied while he and Nana gave high five handshakes to their old friend.
"Welcome back with the team, lads." Andrew greeted with his Lancashire accent.
"Thank you, Boss."
"Considering your new official status, I'll allow the two of you share a room although with separate beds, of course. Still, I strongly recommend you to avoid any further 'extracurricular' activity for tonight. If you have to be hot, then be hot on the pitch."
"Boss... You know us better than that." Kakeru replied. He was red-faced.
"We already can't wait for tomorrow's training session." Nana added.
Andrew then laughed. "Of course, I know you two are some of my best professionals; I was just kidding. See you tomorrow morning at breakfast."
"Thank you. Good night, Boss." Kakeru said before Andrew left the lobby.
"He's an interesting character, this Andrew Butler." Yusuke remarked.
"He is a no-nonsense man, but he will be your best ally by far if you work hard on the pitch to earn his trust." Nana replied.
"Where's the rest of the team?" Kakeru asked.
"They are already in their rooms resting ahead of tomorrow." Yusuke replied.
"I guess we should get some rest too. I'm a little tired" Nana said.
"I agree. But once tomorrow kicks in, I hope you'll be ready." Yusuke added.
"Bring it on!" Kakeru finished.
Monday July 23
International Stadium Yokohama, Yokohama, Japan
Since Kakeru and Nana joined Manchester United, the squad changed considerably since Sir Alex’s last match in May 2013. The older players from that time made way for a new generation of players like Sergio Romero (Argentine), Romelu Lukaku (Belgian), Alexis Sánchez (Chilean), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (Dutch), Anthony Martial (French), Paul Pogba (French), Matthias Köhler (German), Eric Bailly (Ivorian), Diogo Dalot (Portuguese), Scott McTominay (Scottish), Nemanja Matić (Serbian), Ander Herrera (Spanish), Juan Mata (Spanish), Victor Lindelöf (Swedish), Jesse Lingard (English), Demetri Mitchell (English), Luke Shaw (English), and Axel Tuanzebe (English). Kakeru and Nana also embodied the change of guard that was initiated after their arrival in England. Only current club captain Antonio Valencia (Ecuadorian), Phil Jones (English), Chris Smalling (English), Ashley Young (English), and David de Gea (Spanish) survived the many changes that happened between Sir Alex's departure and Andrew Butler's arrival. However, World Cup constraints forced United to bring many young players on the pre-season tour until the regulars, who played in deeper rounds of that tournament, could regain enough fitness to play some minutes.
In the first day of training for Kakeru and Nana now back with the team, the International Stadium Yokohama was the venue. In the stands that gave a view on the main field, there was a crowd of a few thousands Japanese fans in the attendance to see the players in action a couple of days before the friendly match with Yokohama F. Marinos. Although several regular players were still on vacation because they played at the World Cup, those who were at the training camp received a very warm welcome from the crowd. Obviously, Yusuke received the loudest cheers from the crowd present in the stadium as expected. However, Yusuke looked a little nervous.
"I guess you're used to cheers in this place, Yusuke. What's the matter?" Kakeru asked.
"I have a hard time believing I'm about to train alongside some of the guys I admired as a fan for years even though we already introduced to each other."
"It's a normal feeling, but it will get back to normal once the first whistle is blown." Nana replied.
"Just relax, man! It's your turf after all." Jesse said to Yusuke before the former walked up ahead.
"Come on. Make us proud." Kakeru said.
"I will, Mom." Yusuke joked with Kakeru before both laughed out loud.
"OK, everyone. Let's get to work, and show the people here how we do things." Michael Carrick, the newly retired player and now assistant coach, ordered the players.
And so the training session carried on as normal with very familiar drills and a simulated match. Kakeru and Nana showed they didn't lack match fitness as much as some people would have thought for a first day, much to the coaches' satisfaction. Yusuke also gave a solid performance as a defensive midfielder.
Since Andrew Butler became the manager, there was only one thing to know: you are either in the boat or off it. Excellence was demanded from anyone who aspired to be a regular in the squad. Although Andrew is brutally honest with his players, he also knows how to connect with each of them, and make everyone feel as an important part of the team. Training sessions are precise, intense, and everything is done with the ball. In those training sessions, players are drilled to play in more ways than one in order to maintain a flexible approach that can win any match.
Although Andrew didn't come with the most decorated résumé among the candidates who wanted the job of Manchester United manager, he has the strong personality and self-belief that could lift a team high enough to achieve more than what’s expected of them. The man from Lancashire was not one who hesitated in taking an unconventional approach to win matches. His trust in both Kakeru and Nana would testify that fact.
At the very end of the training session, the coaches moved towards the goal line ahead of the most spectacular drill of all: a shooting competition. The rules for all the players were simple: 1) Receive the coach's pass just outside of the box before loading a long-range shot; 2) score past the goalkeeper, and you can take a rest; 3) miss, and you wait back in line to have to go again until one unlucky player is standing alone.
"Think you're ready for this? I would love to see that cannon shot Kakeru told me about." Ander said.
"Well, I don't want to steal the spotlight." Yusuke replied humbly.
"If Kakeru told us so, we believe him. We'd like to see it." Ander said.
"You have done this many times before, so enjoy the moment, and give one for the fans." Nana added.
"Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!" the other players encouraged Yusuke altogether.
After a few players took their first shot, it was Yusuke's turn. From the goal line, Michael made the pass towards Yusuke. After one first touch just outside the box, the Japanese defensive midfielder unleashed a powerful shot with his left leg. The ball flew out of the goalkeeper's reach, and straight into the top corner. Fans and players alike could only cheer loudly at the stunning end result.
"Great shot, Yusuke!" Kakeru exclaimed.
"That was a rocket!" Demetri exclaimed.
"Fans in Manchester will surely love you if you do that in matches." Juan added.
"Well done, boy. Next, come on!" Michael ordered the shootout to resume.
The shooting competition continued for a while. Kakeru and Nana scored on their first attempts as well, to the fans' greatest satisfaction. A number of other United players had to take other attempts. Meanwhile, Andrew kept an eye on Yusuke while thinking of the upcoming season. 'With this new Japanese lad, we should have nothing to worry anymore about midfield depth. I can focus on other needs if any.'
After the training session was finished, the players took a few minutes to sign autographs with the Japanese fans before they went on their way down the corridor leading to the dressing rooms.
"So? Not bad for a first. You let no one going past you in the training match, and you blasted a nice shot to cheer at." Kakeru said.
"This team... They're a good bunch of guys. I never thought they would make me get comfy that easily." Yusuke replied.
"Kakeru talked about you to many of the lads. They will enjoy being your teammates." Nana said.
"Anyway, just give them a good first impression in the first half before switching sides at halftime, Yusuke." Kakeru added.
A few moments later, Nana spotted Andrew talking to his coaching staff. "Boss, do you have a moment?"
"Yes, Nana. What is it?"
"I have a favor to ask you regarding the match against Marinos. It's about something I wished to do for some time now, and it might be the last chance for me to do so." Nana said.
"I hope you're not asking too much from me, but I'm listening." Andrew replied.
Then Nana explained her request. Andrew was a little surprised at first, but he saw how determined Nana was, and then accepted the idea. "I see you’re a fierce competitor at heart, and I like that. I should be able to make something out of it."
"Thanks, Boss." Nana finished with a smile.
Wednesday July 25
Yokohama F. Marinos vs. Manchester United (Pre-season match 3)
International Stadium Yokohama, Yokohama, Japan
It was the second match of the Japanese part of the pre-season tour. Just 4 days earlier, Manchester United drew 1-1 with AC Milan before winning the ensuing penalty shootout by a crazy score of 9-8; the match was played in the same stadium in Yokohama as part of the International Champions Cup. Although Yokohama F. Marinos were not considered to be of the same ilk as the likes of AC Milan, Manchester United still considered this friendly match seriously as a good challenge against a team in mid-season form and a great opportunity to get closer to top gear ahead of the upcoming Premier League season.
In this rather hot summer evening, it was a very special occasion for Kakeru and Nana as they were about to play in front of family and friends, who came from various parts of the Kanagawa prefecture. However, everyone knew this would be first and foremost Yusuke's big night.
"Wow! Look at this big crowd." Mito said.
"I know, Mito. They did a lot of publicity for this match involving Kakeru, Nana-chan, and Saeki-kun, so I'm not surprised." Mrs. Aizawa replied.
"Saeki-kun will probably play most of the game, but I'm surprised that Nana-chan is starting the match against him." M. Aizawa said as he looked at the starting lineup displayed on Mito's smartphone.
"She will probably play the entire first half before she gets replaced. However, she told me a few times that she wanted to square off against her old friend in a match." M. Mishima replied.
"I see. It might be her last chance to do so."
"Indeed, Aizawa-san. Whatever happens, I feel we'll have a great game today." Mrs. Mishima replied.
"Are the Saekis in the attendance? I haven't seen them." Mrs Aizawa asked.
"From what I could get from Kake-nii, they are. However, they are seated a few sections away from us, Mom." Mito replied.
"At least, we will all share this moment." Shigeru finished.
Finally, both teams walked out of the tunnel and towards the pitch under the applause of more than 72,000 spectators packing the stadium to the rafters. Manchester United came out with red shirts, black shorts, and black and red socks. On the other hand, Yokohama F. Marinos came out with their recognizable blue shirts, white shorts and red socks.
Manchester United started with the following experimental 4-1-2-1-2 lineup: Lee Grant (#13; goalkeeper), Axel Tuanzebe (#38; right-back), Eric Bailly (#3; centre-back), Chris Smalling (#12, centre-back and acting captain), Luke Shaw (#23; left-back), Timothy “Timbo” Fosu-Mensah (#24; defensive midfielder), Ander Herrera (#21; central midfielder), Scott McTominay (#39; central midfielder), Nana Mishima (#19; attacking midfielder), Juan Mata (forward), and Alexis Sánchez (striker).
On the other hand, Yokohama responded with the following 4-3-3 formation: Hiroki Iikura (goalkeeper), Ken Matsubara (right-back), Yuji Nakazawa (centre-back and captain), Dušan Cvetinović (centre-back), Ryosuke Yamanaka (left-back), Takuya Kida (central midfielder), Takahiro Ogihara (central defensive midfielder), Yusuke Saeki (central midfielder), Teruhito Nakagawa (right winger), Hugo Vieira (striker), and Yuki Otsu (left winger).
Both teams shook hands, and then moved into their positions. However, Nana and Yusuke spoke a little longer as they were the last players of their respective teams in the handshake line for this match.
"Yusuke, I really wanted to play against you. So don't hold back on me for the next 45 minutes." Nana said.
"Are you sure?"
"Don't hold back at all. I wanna test myself." Nana said again.
"OK, if you ask it. But I'm warning you: I won't hesitate in playing really hard on you." Yusuke replied.
"I never thought you would. So put me to the test, but let's have fun as well." Nana finished with a smile before both players took part to the pre-match photos, and then moved into their respective positions.
Just a few seconds later, the referee blew his whistle when the clock struck 7:30 PM. Kicking off the match alongside Alexis, Nana passed the ball back towards Ander. After a few passes, Juan Mata received the ball on the left flank. After a slight inwards run, the Spaniard passed the ball across towards Nana in front of the box. However, Yusuke arrived straight in front of her.
"You asked for it. So try me then, Nana." Yusuke said.
Almost without asking, Nana went into the duel. The Little Witch tried to get past Yusuke, but the latter stood his ground so well that she was forced to a halt in her run. Nana tried a couple of feints to shake Yusuke off, but to no avail.
'He's really good.' Kakeru thought as he watched the action from the bench.
In fact, Yusuke spent a good deal of time playing as a very strong defensive midfielder for Marinos before he took on more responsibilities as a box-to-box midfielder over the last year. The Manchester United scouts and Andrew saw exactly those defensive capabilities as the reason why they made a move to sign him.
With no way to go forward, Nana passed the ball sideways to Ander. The Spanish midfielder then tried to make a through pass towards Alexis. However, the pass was not as dangerous as Nana's would have been.
"Nakazawa-senpai!" Yusuke shouted for help.
"I got it." Yokohama's centre-back Yuji Nakazawa replied as he moved in a position intercept the pass before it reached Alexis. The former captain of the Japanese national team took the ball away, and then passed it to Yusuke on the run forward. However, Nana was also following Yusuke, and entered a shoulder-to-shoulder contest for ball control.
"I won't be easy to shake off." Nana said.
Then Yusuke tried to shake her off with the roulette, but Nana forced Yusuke to stop his turn. Suddenly, Yusuke spotted a teammate in midfield, and passed the ball towards him. As Ander rushed towards that Yokohama midfielder, the latter flicked the pass into Yusuke’s run for the give-and-go. Trying to stop Yusuke again with another shoulder contact, Nana was overpowered and pushed to the ground after Yusuke anticipated the challenge. As a result, Yusuke dashed forward and faster on the counterattack.
'He anticipated the challenge.' Nana thought before she called Timothy for defensive support: "Don't let him through, Timbo!"
However, Yusuke was also strong and quick. He stood his ground against Timothy's challenge with ease, and then passed the ball to Yuki Otsu on the wing. Trying to get inside the Manchester United box, Otsu was facing Axel on the lateral edge of the Manchester United penalty area.
"Otsu!" Yusuke shouted.
Without any hesitation, the Yokohama winger backtracked for half a yard before he passed the ball back into the front of the 18-yard box for Yusuke, who shook off his marker for the split second he needed. Having spotted a shooting lane between both of United's centre-backs, the Japanese midfielder unleashed a powerful shot from his left foot. The ball flew into the net, leaving Lee Grant totally powerless. Suddenly, it was 1-0 for Yokohama F. Marinos, and the home team fans erupted to applaud the hero of the night very loudly.
Stadium announcer: Goal for Yokohama F. Marinos... number 10, Yusuke Saeki!
"Pick up the pace, lads! It's only one goal." Kakeru shouted from the bench to cheer his teammates up.
Meanwhile, Nana was reflecting on the recent course of events involving Yusuke. 'I won't be able to beat Yusuke that easily. I need to outsmart him, and make sure he can't anticipate.'
From that point, the game consisted mainly of Yokohama F. Marinos holding onto the ball, and looking more menacing. However, it was expected as United were just beginning pre-season while Yokohama were in their mid-season form. Around 12 minutes after the first goal, Yokohama started another attack from their end of the pitch through Yusuke.
"Watch out!" Yuji Nakazawa shouted.
Before Yusuke could react, Nana came in with a strong sliding tackle from the side, and sent Yusuke sprawling to the ground, but not without touching the ball legally first. The loose ball went towards Ander, who then passed the ball towards his compatriot Juan Mata. The little Spaniard arrived in front of the penalty area against 2 Yokohama defenders.
"Switch right!" Nana shouted as she ran past Juan on his right.
"Witch!" Juan replied as he passed the ball to Nana.
Nana still had the defender Yamanaka in front of her, but she immediately flicked the ball towards the far post. With the Yokohama goalkeeper left stranded in a difficult spot, Alexis dashed his way and arrived at the end of Nana's pass. The rest was an easy header to tie the score at 1-1, much to the joy of the Manchester United supporters in the crowd. A few Marinos supporters protested against the referee for deeming Nana's tackle as legal, but to no avail.
"Well done, Niño!" Nana said as all the players in red celebrated. The word was a simplification of Alexis' nickname: El Niño Maravilla (The Wonder Boy).
"Nice pass, Witch." Alexis replied.
Walking back towards back towards her own half alongside her teammates under the cheers of the thousands of Japanese United supporters, Nana's gaze met Yusuke's. "So, are you up to the challenge?" Nana asked.
"Playtime's over, Nana." Yusuke replied with a smile.
From that point on, both teams were equally matched as the intensity reached new levels with back and forth action. Nana created chances for teammates, and put a shift in with a few important tackles supporting her midfield teammates too. Meanwhile, Yusuke responded with many interceptions and tackles of his own. Nana and Yusuke's high competitiveness levels created excellent 1v1 duels. In the 29th minute, Nana led the charge into the Yokohama half for her team.
"Come on, Nana! Go!" Mrs. Mishima shouted from her seat.
On the counterattack, Nana came face to face with Yusuke again. "Time's almost up, Nana." Yusuke said as he reminded her of the 30-minute deadline signaling the end of her first pre-season appearance.
"It's not over yet." Nana replied before she pulled the roulette move. Yusuke shifted his own body in anticipation, but was suddenly fooled by a second turn in the opposite direction as Nana completed the second phase of her Witch Turn.
"Damn it!" Yusuke cursed as he stuck both a leg and an arm out in a quick reflex move to stop Nana at all costs. As a result, Nana got brought down 20 yards from goal, and thus was awarded a direct free kick. With the wall of players moving 10 yards behind the location of the ball as indicated by the referee, Nana (right-footed) and Juan (left-footed) discussed about the strategy.
"Este es mío (This one is mine)." Nana said in Spanish to Juan.
"Seré el señuelo. Tu vas detrás de mi (I will be the decoy. You go after me)."
Juan put the ball down on the grass. When the referee blew his whistle, Juan made the first run over the ball. Surprised by the dummy, several Yokohama players in the wall flinched and stood flatfooted. Nana followed behind Juan before she took the shot. With one strike of Nana's right foot, the ball flew quickly over the wall with a strong bend and a dip that left the Yokohama goalkeeper totally helpless. With the shot hitting the inside of the crossbar and into the back of the net, Nana got the whole stadium cheering at the sheer quality of the free kick that gave United a 2-1 lead at the half-hour mark.
"Hora! (Oh my!) What a shot, Nana-nee!" Mito exclaimed.
"That's my girl!" M. Mishima shouted happily.
After Nana celebrated the goal with her teammates while Yusuke could only shake his head with a little smile in front of the beauty of the goal. The Manchester United bench also stood up and cheered wildly at the wonderful shot they just saw.
"Great shot, Seven! Great shot!" Kakeru shouted.
"Your girl really stepped up with a beauty there." Demetri said.
"I know. I saw her train on those free kicks for some time now, but I didn't think she would catch Iikura flatfooted like that." Kakeru finished.
For the rest of the first half, both teams continued their display of end-to-end action although United held their ground a lot better than earlier. However just before halftime, Yokohama tied the score at 2-2 on a goal from Dušan Cvetinović, on a corner kick that was taken by Yusuke. Andrew was not particularly happy with the way the defenders in red man-marked the Serbian defender in a blue shirt.
In the dressing room at halftime:
"That was a great 45 minutes, Seven." Kakeru said, giving Nana a hug.
"Thanks, but I wish we had the lead at halftime." Nana replied.
"Not too bad for a match-up against Yusuke. How was it to play against him?"
"He's one of the toughest opponents I've ever faced, Kakeru. I'm glad I held my ground very well, but he's the only one quick enough to take me down so quickly after a Witch Turn. I will feel a lot better to have him with us rather than against us." Nana replied.
"Good thing he's on our side now." Kakeru finished.
Then Andrew came to give his impressions on the first half.
"OK, lads. We knew they would come out strong, but we have to play tighter against them. Hey! No one ever said it would be easy. Push them back in the second half, keep focus, and let's do things the right way. Plus, we now have the newcomer with us in the squad." Andrew said to his players before he turned towards the door. "Come in, Yusuke."
"Oi oi! There he is." Chris announced as Yusuke made his way in the dressing room.
"I hope I didn't drive anyone mad in the first half, did I?" Yusuke asked.
"Not at all. You played like a top professional out there like anyone here would do. Come on, we have your kit ready." Juan replied.
After Yusuke shook a few hands, he went to his assigned place in the dressing room, and contemplated his new number 17 shirt hanging in his locker.
"Put it on. Are you going to stay there all evening?"
"Sure, Kakeru." Yusuke replied before he turned towards Nana. "That was a good 30 minutes out there. I see why people rate you so highly, Nana."
"Thanks. I hope you’re not angry about the way I accepted your challenge." Nana said.
"Nope. In fact, I wanted to see that, and it was OK as long as it wasn't too dangerous." Yusuke said as he was changing shirts.
"After such a first half, let's give the fans something to remember in the second half as well." Kakeru replied.
"Yusuke, Kakeru, you two lads will start the second half. Nana, I'll take you off for Yusuke to come in." Andrew ordered.
"Yes, Boss!" the 3 Japanese players replied.
When both teams came back on the pitch, all the supporters in the stands looked towards the players' tunnel, and anticipated the long awaited moment. Yusuke emerged out from the tunnel with the Manchester United kit on before he received a long ovation from the crowd. In response, the Kanagawa-born midfielder waved his hand up to acknowledge the support of everyone who were, are, and will still be his fans.
Stadium announcer: Substitution for Manchester United... number 19, Nana Mishima, is replaced by number 17, Yusuke Saeki.
Shortly after Yusuke came onto the pitch, the entire crowd inside the stadium started to cheer as loudly as seconds earlier when they saw Kakeru standing on the touchline. Since Manchester United had no player wearing number 10 by the time the previous season ended, Kakeru took the number. The Kamakura-born forward was proudly wearing the number that always belonged to his late brother, Suguru.
Stadium announcer: Substitution for Manchester United... number 24, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, is replaced by number 10, Kakeru Aizawa.
When Kakeru was announced to the crowd, the Japanese supporters in the stadium stood up, and cheered for a couple of minutes. The striker is always considered by the Japanese supporters as one of their own, regardless of which club he plays for. Moreover, it was a relief for all Japanese fans to see Kakeru fit again after the cruel twist of fate that saw him miss the World Cup back in June.
"You're quite the star here." Alexis said
"It's not like I asked to be, but yes indeed." Kakeru replied.
"You feel like having a goal in you tonight?" Yusuke asked.
"Absolutely! Let's give them what they want." Kakeru finished.
In all, Yokohama made several changes at halftime while United made only a few changes. Nevertheless, Kakeru and Yusuke’s introduction to the lineup transformed the 4-1-2-1-2 formation into a full 4-3-3 setup. Yusuke became the man patrolling as the defensive midfielder while Kakeru became the front striker with Alexis and Juan flanking him.
Finally, Yokohama kicked things off in the second half. Because of the many substitutions typical of a friendly match, both teams found it hard to gain any momentum. In the 55th minute, United initiated the attack. After a few passes, the ball went to Yusuke. United's new Japanese midfielder passed forward to Alexis, but the Chilean was strongly tackled from behind by a Yokohama player. Fortunately for United, the referee gave the advantage as the loose ball went into Kakeru's feet. Shaking off his markers for a few seconds, Kakeru suddenly unleashed a long-range scorcher that appeared to be flying towards the top corner of the goal. However, the Yokohama goalkeeper stretched his jump just enough to deflect the shot out of danger.
"OOOOOOHHH!!!" the whole crowd shouted as everyone jumped out of their seats for a second. The last action by Kakeru almost produced a moment of magic.
"What a shot!" Shigeru exclaimed.
"I thought that was in." Mrs. Aizawa added.
"Kakeru-kun doesn't try often from distance, but he sure can score some." M. Mishima said as well.
"KAKERU! KAKERU! KAKERU!" Mito shouted alongside thousands of supporters showing their appreciation of the last attempt on goal.
"Nice try, Knight." Juan said.
"Still, I won't settle down only with that. I promised someone that I will score a goal."
"A certain lady, I presume?" Ander asked slyly.
"No, it's for someone who's a lot younger, and loves football." Kakeru replied.
Around 3 minutes later, another Yokohama attack was stopped in the tracks by Yusuke. Having retrieved the loose ball at the back, Eric launched a pass forward and into Yusuke's path on the counterattack. The new Japanese midfielder in red sent what seemed to be a long ball towards Kakeru, who saw Yuji Nakazawa standing in front of him as well as Alexis on his left. Knowing what to do in this situation, Kakeru flicked the pass towards Alexis, who then proceeded with a one-touch through pass into Kakeru's run. Having lost Kakeru for a split second, Nakazawa was caught off guard, and Kakeru slipped behind the defense. With a well-placed shot past the goalkeeper and into the bottom corner of the net, it was suddenly 3-2 for Manchester United. Thousands of Japanese United supporters jumped out of their seats in celebration.
"ATTABOY, KAKE-NII!" Mito exclaimed.
"That was a great setup play all day long!" Shigeru said.
"Kakeru and his teammate knew what they were doing." Mrs. Aizawa added.
Meanwhile on the Manchester United bench:
"Great goal, Kakeru!" Nana shouted as she and Kakeru exchanged peace signs with a smile.
"We are really blessed to have both of you in good form with us. He will be ready for the season a lot sooner than expected." Michael said to Nana.
"We should thank to the fitness coaches for their summer training programs, Carras. They deserve a lot of credit."
"True, but you're the ones doing the job by sticking to the plan." Michael finished.
Even after they regained the lead, Manchester United did not quite sit back. Aggressive defending saw the Red Devils move back often on the attack. The Yokohama team was desperately trying to hold onto their chances of equalizing again, but they were exactly where United wanted to take them. In the 65th minute, the Red Devils earned a corner kick.
'It's our first corner kick. We'll see what Yusuke can do in the air instead of shooting corner kicks this time.' Nana thought.
Proceeding with following corner kick, Alexis sent a high ball towards the near post before Yusuke made contact with the ball on his head in front of the nearest Yokohama defender. As the header shot appeared to miss the net, Kakeru jumped out of nowhere between 2 defenders, and threw his right foot high enough to make contact with the ball only 2 yards away from goal. Suddenly, Kakeru's shot was a deadly finish as he increased his team's lead at 4-2.
The thousands of Manchester United supporters in the stadium as well as all Manchester United substitutes jumped out of their seats in jubilation. In response, Kakeru celebrated with a Miroslav Klose-style front flip after he ran for a short distance.
"Great goal, Kakeru!" Yusuke exclaimed after he jumped on Kakeru's back in the celebrations.
"Thanks. That was a good jump too."
Meanwhile, in the stands:
"Kakeru's on fire! He already scored twice!" Mito exclaimed.
"He made that goal look so easy." Mrs. Aizawa replied.
"Kakeru sure made a great comeback today." M. Aizawa said.
"Kake-nii will definitely be looking for more." Mito finished.
From that point forward, the rest of the game was mostly in Manchester United's favor as the team from the Northwest of England was energized by Kakeru's leadership on the attack. Even though Alexis was subbed off around the 75th minute for the U21 player Tahith Chong, Kakeru had the whole stage to put on a show. The Japanese striker in red, galvanized by the joy of playing in his home prefecture, earned 2 assists for goals scored by Ander (75th minute) and by Eric (80th minute). The Yokohama team tried to retaliate when they could, but Yusuke's command of the midfield battle neutralized most of the danger.
PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEEEEP!!!
The final whistle was blown as Manchester United finally prevailed by a score of 6-2 over Yokohama F. Marinos. Everyone stood up to applaud both teams for displaying a great show on the pitch.
"That was a very entertaining game." Mito said.
"I'm not sure the Boss will be all happy with the defending at times. Kakeru told me that he's very demanding about it in training." M. Aizawa replied.
"Nevertheless, we should be happy that both Nana and Kakeru-kun were in good form tonight." Mrs. Mishima said.
"Yeah. Hats off to them tonight. They will definitely be ready for the season." Shigeru finished.
On the pitch, players from both teams shook hands in respect to the sportsmanship of this friendly match. Yusuke exchanged words of good luck with several of his now-former teammates from Marinos. Meanwhile, Yuji Nakazawa was shaking hands with Kakeru.
"Great game, Aizawa. Seeing you in action right in front of my eyes makes me realize how skillful your generation is. It's beyond anything I have ever wished for our country. I hope you'll accomplish something great." Yuji said.
"Thanks, Nakazawa-san. You're a player I always liked when I was a child. You paved the way for many of us. Good luck for the remaining matches of the J-League season, and I hope to see you again soon." Kakeru replied.
"Thanks. It would be an honor to exchange shirts with you between fellow internationals for our country. You know... Once an international, always an international." Yuji said.
"In normal time, I would never decline such a request. However, I thought of giving my shirt to a young kid. He's a little sick right now, but he will be fine. It's just that..."
"Oh, I see. This is a very nice gesture as well. Good luck in the upcoming season."
"Good luck for the rest of your season too, Nakazawa-san." Kakeru replied before both men went to their separate ways. Kakeru was then joined by Nana and Yusuke.
"What will you do with your shirt?" Yusuke asked.
"I'll give it to a child at the hospital where I worked in my clerkship. I'll also get all of the players’ autographs on it." Kakeru replied.
"I'm pretty sure he will be very happy about it." Nana said.
As he promised to himself, Kakeru got his shirt signed by all of his teammates before he went to Tokyo Medical University Hospital on the following day, and gave the signed shirt to Toshio. The young recovering patient in the nephrology department was the happiest kid in Japan. Meanwhile, the entire Manchester United team were set to prepare themselves to face a club from England in the next unofficial match on Japanese soil... Arsenal.