New Year, A Little Resistance
After the victory against Newcastle United, the crazy stretch of the festive season continued with Manchester United going down south for a tough match against Tottenham Hotspur in London (December 30). The Red Devils prevailed with a 2-1 victory against the "Spurs" in order to maintain their chances in the title race. However, there was no time to celebrate as the next match was scheduled to take place just 2 days later in Manchester, on New Year's Day.
Before the match against Tottenham, Kakeru managed to recover enough leg strength and explosiveness in the gym to take part in his first full training session in nearly a month. However, a return to competition was not in the cards until one week into January as Kakeru needed to reach full fitness first. Meanwhile, Nana was rested against Tottenham as part of squad rotation which was necessary with the number of matches within 7 days; she was told to expect playing in the next match.
During the festive period, footballers have to make sacrifices such as stopping themselves from indulging in alcoholic drinks. All of those sacrifices were for the sake of better recovery at a time when normal people would do the opposite. Clubs had rules regarding any player who is spotted at a pub or nightclub; players would be docked a week's wages if they violate those rules. Although José relaxed the rules for the eve of the first match of the new year by allowing players to spend the night at home, a few players still choose to spend the night at the hotel as a team meeting was set to take place in the morning of the match anyway.
Sunday December 31
Lowry Hotel, Manchester, UK
11:45 PM GMT
Kakeru and Nana were wearing their pajamas, watching the New Year's Eve celebrations live from Manchester on local television. The city was lively, but the main gathering place for the celebrations was in front of the town hall on Albert Square, only half a mile away from the hotel. There was a live concert going on at the square with a crowd in the thousands.
"You know you could afford to be there right now since you're not fit to play yet, Kakeru. Noriko is with her family over there, and she wrote that it is the biggest party she has ever seen in Manchester on a December 31st yet." Nana said.
"And celebrating the New Year without you? Not a chance." Kakeru replied.
"Yeah, but you are missing something when you can afford to be there."
"I know I can, but I'm a part of this team from start to finish. It means that I will endure what all of my teammates have to endure. And besides, we still have a good view up here for the midnight fireworks." Kakeru said.
"Let's see the fireworks then." Nana replied.
Then someone knocked at the door, which got Kakeru walking to open it. Waiting in front of the door was the assistant manager, Rui Faria.
"Everything all right here?" Rui asked.
"Everything's fine, Coach. We were just watching the downtown celebrations on TV." Kakeru replied.
"Good. Nana, it's time to go to sleep. You have a match to play tomorrow."
"We're only waiting to see the midnight fireworks. When they are stopped, we're off to bed." Nana said.
"OK then. Goodnight and Happy New Year."
"Goodnight and Happy New Year, Coach." Kakeru and Nana replied to Rui, who then left towards the next room. Kakeru then closed the door.
Minutes later, the final countdown to the New Year was on.
"10... 9... 8... 7... 6... 5... 4... 3... 2... 1..." Kakeru and Nana counted altogether.
When the clock struck midnight, a large array of fireworks were released from the roof of the town hall, illuminating the Manchester sky with colors.
"Whoa! It never gets old to see this." Nana said.
"I know. Happy New Year, Nana." Kakeru hugged Nana from behind.
"Happy New Year, Kakeru." Nana reached Kakeru's cheek, and stroked it gently.
"You see: this is why I didn't want to spend this moment without you, Nana."
"Then I will say you made a wise choice, Kakeru."
Kakeru and Nana then continued watching the fireworks for another 10 minutes. At 12:10 AM, the fireworks finally stopped with the crowd at Albert Square giving one last round of cheers and applause for the colorful display.
"Well, that was it." Kakeru said.
"It was beautiful indeed. Off to sleep now." Nana replied.
Kakeru and Nana then went to bed. Under the blanket, Kakeru held onto Nana tightly as if he didn't want to let her go.
"Hey, I'm not going anywhere." Nana said.
"It's just that I was thinking about us getting finally married this year. Since I realized I had feelings for you for all those years, I kept on wishing this dream to become a reality." Kakeru replied.
"This dream is also something I wished for so long, and it will happen. This year will be our year. I promise, Kakeru."
"I promise it too, Nana."
"But we'll take it one day at the time. Let's think about the match first." Nana said.
"You're right about that. Goodnight, Nana."
Monday January 1st
Manchester United vs. Southampton (Premier League match 22)
Old Trafford, Manchester, UK
2:49 PM GMT
Depending on how the calendar is set, Premier League clubs play their first match of the New Year on January 1st or on January 2nd. As such, the matches follow the same schedule pattern as on Saturdays. Arsenal already kicked the day off by winning their match to hold a temporary 9-point lead in front of Manchester United. Hence a victory was imperative for United to stay in the title race, but they had to get on top of a side that held them to a 1-1 draw back in October: Southampton F.C. The opposition was one that was reckoned as very hard to beat. If someone was not fond enough of playing with puns, it was a battle between Red Devils and Saints as those were nicknames for United and Southampton respectively. Both teams were set for a traditional 3:00 PM kickoff.
Just before the teams walked out of the tunnel, Kakeru was there to wish good luck to his teammates. Nana was chosen as one of the 11 starters while Yusuke started the game on the bench. To be fair, Yusuke was voted man of the match 2 days ago when his efforts allowed United to stop almost all of Tottenham's attacks. One of the starters for Manchester United was English left-back Luke Shaw. After a long struggle against injuries, physical fitness issues, and motivation issues over the last few seasons, Luke looked like a fully revitalized player living up to his potential since the beginning of December. As a result, he earned a start against his former club on the day.
"Give them a heck of a game, Seven." Kakeru said.
"Thanks, Kakeru. We'll go for it."
"Better stay patient a little more, Knight. We want to have you back in full fitness soon." Romelu said.
"I will. Good luck out there, Rom." Kakeru said.
"We'll win this one. Count on me." Romelu replied.
"Go for the big one, guys. You can do this." Kakeru said to his other teammates.
"Thanks, Knight." Nemanja replied.
"We'll get them. With all the calls they had going their way in October, their luck has to end today." Matthias added.
After Kakeru was done talking with his teammates, he walked his way towards his seat in the stands to join his other teammates who were not part of the 18-man squad. Meanwhile, Noriko and her family already arrived at their usual seats in the South Stand.
"It's has been a while since Nana started a match in the Premier League with neither Kakeru nor Yusuke in the side." Robert said.
"You're right, Dad. But she still has a very good supporting cast around her today." Noriko replied.
"I hope Nana will have a good game today. She had a difficult outing against Southampton earlier this season." Sayuri said.
"It's part of a player's growth to overcome an obstacle. If Nana wants to grow as a player, she will push forward to make a difference." Harry replied.
"Spot on, Grandpa. Knowing Nana, she will take on the challenge." Noriko finished.
Finally, the 2 teams arrived on the pitch. Both sides decided to field players that fit opposing 4-3-3 formations. In the first match of the New Year for both teams, the visitors from the Southern coast of England chose to kick things off. Although United looked like the more aggressive side, the Saints didn't take long to push the action in the other side of the halfway line with an attack of their own.
In the 5th minute:
Ian Crocker: Dušan Tadić... He's fouled by Antonio Valencia. Free kick for Southampton.
Attacking down United's right side, the Saints earned an indirect free kick that looked promising for the tall players they had out there. When the referee saw everyone ready, the whistle was blown to order the free kick to be taken.
Ian Crocker: James Ward-Prowse will take...
The Southampton player launched the ball into United's penalty area, but the ball was cleared away by Matthias. Nevertheless, the loose ball remained in control of the Saints.
Ian Crocker: Oriol Romeu… leaves it for Ward-Prowse.
As James Ward-Prowse took the ball, he spotted a teammate asking for the ball. It was the Southampton right-back making a run up on the opposite flank. In response, the pass went towards that player.
Ian Crocker: He spotted Cédric down the right-hand side.
Pushing up the attack, Cédric Soares made a pass towards Serbian teammate Dušan Tadić, who then flicked the ball past a few Manchester United devils. And suddenly, the Southampton striker was in the clear.
Ian Crocker: Cédric... Tadić... Good pass for Gabbiadini...
Taking advantage of one split second off the watch of the defenders in red, Manolo Gabbiadini took the shot across the goalkeeper and into the bottom corner to give the visitors a surprise lead.
Ian Crocker: Ohhh, it's IN! Manolo Gabbiadini has kicked off the New Year with an early goal. Within 5 minutes, it's: Manchester United 0-1 Southampton!
Watching the celebrating Southampton players with disgust, Nana couldn't believe what just happened. Nevertheless, she tried to rally her teammates alongside Pog.
"Come on, lads! The game has started." Pog said.
"Let's get back in there and grab the next one!" Nana added.
In the stands:
"That sucks." Juan said.
"Yeah, everyone was surprised by that pass except the striker." Kakeru replied.
"You have to give credit to the passer." Juan said.
"It's only one goal. We have to pile up the pressure on them." Kakeru finished.
And piling up the pressure the Red Devils did. Following the surprise and shock of conceding the first goal, the home side pushed the action across the halfway line to do what they do best: finding gaps and attack the goal.
In the 12th minute:
Ian Crocker: Matić... Pogba...
Starting from just beyond the center circle, Nemanja passed the ball on the left towards Pog. After quick back-to-back passes with Henrikh, the French midfielder then passed the ball towards Nana, who was lurking away from Southampton defenders in the middle for a moment.
Ian Crocker: And now Mishima. She can hit it from distance...
When she arrived within 22 yards from goal despite the arrival of defenders desperately trying to stop the shot, the Little Witch struck the ball hard and low. It first appeared that the shot would get past the Southampton goalkeeper at the near post. However, something unexpected happened.
Ian Crocker: Oh!!! Against both posts and back into the arms of Fraser Forster! Incredible!
The shot smacked the near post, but then the ball danced on the goal line before hitting the opposite post. Then the ball was recovered by the grateful hands of the Saints' goalkeeper. Thousands of expected cheers turned into moans in an instant as the biggest stroke of luck thus far helped the visitors.
"Screw me sideways!" Nana cursed out loud with her hands on her head before she walked back into a defensive position.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"You gotta be joking me!" Noriko exclaimed.
"I was certain that would go in." Robert added.
"We all thought it was a foregone conclusion. Nana's shot was a very good one though." Harry replied.
"Yeah, it was a matter of millimeters. With some luck, that would have been a goal by now." Sayuri said.
"That's arguably the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen, but I only hope that will not come back to haunt us." Noriko finished.
The Red Devils were not done by a longshot in the first half. Looking to get the equalizing goal, the home team kept on pushing forward looking for every single gap there might be.
In the 20th minute:
Ian Crocker: Mkhitaryan... Pogba...
Pog tried to make run past a couple of Southampton defenders, but couldn't find the gap. Instead, he was forced to make a pass to the right for Antonio.
Ian Crocker: Now to Valencia... to Lingard.
At the moment Antonio lured the nearest Southampton defender out of position, Jesse unleashed a high ball intended for Romelu. However, it was Japanese defender Maya Yoshida who cleared the ball away... only as far as to Pog's audacious attempt by the penalty spot.
Ian Crocker: Cleared... Overhead kick by POGBA!
Unfortunately for Pog, the shot struck the outside of the post and out. The end result was nothing but a goal kick; it was another great chance gone begging for United.
On the Manchester United bench:
"For God's sake!" Chris Smalling exclaimed.
"N'importe quoi! (Rubbish!)" Anthony added.
"This is getting really silly now. So far, it looks like a carbon copy of the match at St. Mary's Stadium." Yusuke said.
"Yeah, and that was driving everyone nuts." Chris said.
'We better score soon. Otherwise, frustration will keep on growing, and that would leave us vulnerable for mistakes.' Yusuke thought.
In the 29th minute:
Ian Crocker: Pogba... a long ball forward for Mkhitaryan.
Henrikh received the pass, but then had to stop his run just inside the Southampton penalty area as Cédric Soares faced him. With no options forward, Henrikh passed the ball backwards for Nana.
Ian Crocker: Mishima... tries to get through.
Nana then tried to create havoc with a dashing run. Despite the presence of 3 Southampton defenders, she managed to make a side pass with the outside of her right foot to tee up Jesse.
Ian Crocker: Lingard! Stopped by Forster.
Jesse took a left-footed shot destined for the bottom corner at the goalkeeper's right. However, the shot lacked power as it easily went into the Southampton goalkeeper's hands. In the aftermath, Jesse was cursing at his own missed opportunity. As Yusuke predicted, frustration was starting to have an effect on his teammates. That situation led to a dangerous lapse of concentration on a rare Southampton attack in the 35th minute:
Ian Crocker: The ball is cleared by Yoshida. Now James Ward-Prowse... Redmond and Shaw are chasing.
Following a clearance by the Southampton defender Maya Yoshida, Ward-Prowse kicked a long ball deep in United's half and towards the touchline. Running for the ball were United's left-back Luke Shaw and Southampton's winger Nathan Redmond. As the Saints' player won his position to fetch the ball, Luke tried to contain his opponent. However, Redmond turned Luke inside out, and started running forward.
Ian Crocker: Redmond... goes around Shaw with some pace...
"Come on! Stop him!" Noriko shouted as she saw the action unfold right in front of her position.
"Watch the player in the open!" Robert shouted as well.
Matthias also tried to prevent Redmond from either pass or shoot, but the Saints' English winger cut a pass across to his left and slightly behind. Southampton's Manolo Gabbiadini was not able to tip the ball in, but the ball arrived in the feet of another Southampton player.
Ian Crocker: Here's the chance for Ryan Bertrand. He's in some space...
Left wide open by the Manchester United defenders was Southampton's left-back Ryan Bertrand, who took a first touch before getting the shot ready. Realizing where the danger was, Antonio rushed towards Bertrand in a desperate attempt to prevent a shot. However, it was Nana who came in with a well-timed sliding tackle to clear the ball out of bounds.
Ian Crocker: What a tackle by Mishima! She has denied Ryan Bertrand a fantastic chance.
While the Manchester United players on the pitch congratulated Nana, the other players in the stands applauded her effort as well.
"Great tackle, Seven!" Kakeru exclaimed.
"Great effort!" Juan exclaimed as well before he turned to Kakeru. "It's a good thing he didn't take the shot first time."
"Yeah. Otherwise, there would have been no way she would have prevented the shot." Kakeru replied.
"We think so much to her position as a playmaker that we forget how good she is defensively." Juan said.
"She's been cutting it against boys and men for years, Juan. She will always find a way to make her presence count at both ends." Kakeru finished.
The last Southampton attack was a warning that cooled down United's ambitions for a few minutes. Nevertheless, the Red Devils started attacking again. Shortly before halftime, they had one more chance to put everyone back to square one.
In the 44th minute:
Ian Crocker: Shaw... it's towards Pogba.
After receiving a pass, Pog made a very quick turn to shake off his marker. Pog then made the dash towards the attacking zone. However, Southampton's defensive midfielder arrived in front of the Frenchman, forcing the latter to make a pass backwards for Nana.
Ian Crocker: Mishima... long ball towards Mkhitaryan...
Nana then launched a long diagonal ball inside the penalty area for Henrikh. Then the Armenian attempted to cross the ball in a dangerous area. However, a Southampton defender blocked the pass, and thus conceded a corner kick. The Old Trafford crowd responded with applause and a roar in anticipation of what was about to come.
Ian Crocker: Corner for Manchester United. Is there a twist right before halftime?
Taking the corner kick, Nana sent the ball flying in a curve towards the pack of players. Arriving first and above anybody else was Pog. However, the French midfielder couldn't put make as much of a clean contact as he would have wished.
Ian Crocker: Paul POGBA! Goes high and wide! It's a goal kick.
Pog slapped the ground in disappointment before he gave Nana the thumbs-up sign.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"Another miss." Noriko said out loud.
"We're almost at halftime now. It's a shame that we missed those chances." Robert added.
"We could have been ahead, but the break might be welcome for our lads to restart with a fresh state of mind." Robert said.
"Indeed. I guess we all need to relax a little bit before they have another go." Noriko said before she switched to her thoughts. 'Still, it will be quite a mentally challenging test. Not only Southampton can defend, but they can also be dangerous on the counterattack if we're not careful.'
Moments later, the referee blew the halftime whistle. The visiting team was quite satisfied to be in the lead, but the Saints knew they had to endure another wave of powerful attacks in the next 45 minutes of play. On the other hand, United were disappointed of not being at least on equal terms on the scoreboard, but the Red Devils were nowhere near resigned to the result.
Kakeru gave a call on Noriko's smartphone to have her reaction to the first half.
"So far, it's not the expected scenario for the first match of the New Year. What do you make of this?" Kakeru asked.
"It is quite frustrating that luck has not been on our side so far. It shares a lot of similarities with the last time you guys faced Southampton." Noriko replied.
"Yeah, we had to keep coming back and coming back to snatch the draw in the 77th minute back in October. But we missed so many chances in that match; it's ridiculous, Noriko." Kakeru said.
"Good thing Nana saved our bacon when they had the chance to go up by 2. That would have been the stuff of nightmares."
"Right now, it's about hitting them quick and hard before our problem gets bigger."
"Yes, Kakeru. We better sort it out quickly." Noriko said. "Enjoy some good company out there?"
"Especially with Juan, that's more than I can ask for." Kakeru replied. "What about you?"
"The match is getting me and my folks a little nervy, but we'll manage. After all, we have seen lots of football and comebacks before. A lot can happen in 45 minutes."
"Spot on, Noriko. It happened so often before, and it can still happen again." Kakeru said.
"I'll let you go for now. Hopefully, we'll end up as the happy ones."
"Yeah. Talk to you later, Noriko." Kakeru finished the conversation.
"Who is that Noriko?" Juan asked.
"She is Yusuke's girlfriend and one of Nana's best friends as well. She's a big United fan too." Kakeru replied.
"When did he start dating her?"
"Yusuke never told us that he has a woman. We had a Christmas party with players, wives, and girlfriends back in the middle of December. I remember that he came in alone."
"He wasn't quite sure whether or not she should join an event where photographers can spot her among other wives and girlfriends, Juan. He formally introduced himself to her parents only on Christmas. It's better if we keep it secret between us for now until Yusuke lets it become public knowledge on his own will." Kakeru said.
"Sure." Juan replied. "What does she do in life?"
"She's studying medicine here in Manchester, and she hopes to become the club's first-team doctor someday."
"That's quite ambitious, but I would be happy if she gets there someday." Juan said.
"She is as committed as Nana is in her own endeavours. I have a good feeling about her future." Kakeru finished.
During halftime, José gave his instructions to his players. Above anything else, he instructed his attack-minded players to attack the Southampton goal with more incisiveness while the defensive-minded players should be ready to provide attacking support at any moment. When the second half started, it only took a little less than 5 minutes for the Red Devils to seriously threaten Fraser Forster's goal.
Ian Crocker: Valencia... Matić... Lingard...
The Manchester United players passed the ball around in the opposition's half. When Jesse received the ball, he then saw a little bit of space to run ahead of him before Southampton players would get in his way.
"Hey!" Nana shouted for a pass a few yards ahead.
"Witch!" Jesse passed the ball towards Nana.
Ian Crocker: Here's Mishima...
Nana had 2 Southampton midfielders hustling towards her, but she also noticed that the defenders had their eyes on her. Meanwhile, Romelu was making a diagonal run to make himself available, and that was more than enough for Nana to cut a through pass.
Ian Crocker: Great ball for LUKAKU!
Romelu used his right foot to control the ball, but also had to act very quickly as Maya Yoshida was closing him down. Only a split second after receiving the pass, Romelu tried to surprise the Southampton goalkeeper with a quick poke with the outside of his right foot. However, the lack of power on the shot allowed Fraser Forster to make a save before a defender cleared the ball away.
Ian Crocker: Terrific save by Forster! Then turned away; it's a corner.
"Jolie passe (Nice pass), Witch." Romelu applauded Nana's earlier effort to create the opportunity. Meanwhile, Nana was running towards the corner flag to take the next kick. United brought 5 players inside the penalty area to attack Forster's goal.
Nana struck a curving ball that was aimed at the far post. Matthias was there to attack the ball.
Ian Crocker: Mishima floats it in towards Köhler...
Matthias and a Southampton defender jumped at the same ball, but the German got slightly ahead. The bouncing ball then barely entered the no man's land before Maya Yoshida headed the ball ahead and out of the penalty area. However, Nemanja was there to recover the loose ball.
Ian Crocker: Away by Yoshida... but here's Nemanja Matić!
Without any hesitation, Nemanja took the shot as he saw how disorganized the Southampton defenders were for a split second. However, the shot flew just wide to the top corner of the goal and into the Stretford End, much to the despair of 72,000+ Manchester United supporters inside Old Trafford.
Ian Crocker: Nearly made it 1-1. Even he cannot believe it.
Nemanja put his hands on his head in disbelief when he saw his shot swirl just by the post. Meanwhile, José Mourinho covered his face in despair as he saw the action from his technical area.
In the stands:
"Oh man! How closer can it get after those 2 chances?" Noriko said out loud.
"The first chance was a great pass by Nana for Lukaku. The second shot needed to be inch-perfect." Harry said.
"In any case, it's nice to see the lads on the front foot already. It's a matter of pushing forward while maintaining control at the same time." Robert replied.
"You used the right word, Dad: control. If we want to have every chance of coming back, we also have to be sure they don't have a crack at our goal when it comes down to it." Noriko said.
"Attack is the best form of defence." Sayuri said.
"Exactly." Robert finished.
And Sayuri was right. Only a few minutes later, United came back with another direct threat on the Southampton goal.
In the 54th minute:
Ian Crocker: Here's Bailly. Deep ball towards Mkhitaryan...
Henrikh made the run on the right wing to recover the ball before Cédric Soares. Once the Armenian took the ball next to the touchline, he had to run backwards so he could find a teammate to pass the ball to. Then Pog arrived in a position to receive the pass.
Ian Crocker: Pogba. He gets past Lemina...
Pog made a run past Gabon-born defensive midfielder Mario Lemina, and then everyone expected a shot from him. Instead, the French midfielder made a chip pass ahead towards Nana. Romelu created the gap by luring a few defenders with him.
Ian Crocker: It's a fantastic ball for MISHIMA!
In her run, Nana synchronized the moment the ball arrived at the right height from behind her to swing a left-footed volley shot on the turn. Unfortunately, Nana's spectacular effort was foiled by the jumping Fraser Forster.
Ian Crocker: And Fraser Forster makes an extraordinary save!
The ball was then cleared out of bounds by the nearest Southampton defender. No one in red could believe what just happened when it almost certain that the beloved Little Witch would make her mark with an epic goal.
"Good effort, Mishima. Still, it's our day today." Maya Yoshida said.
"We still have 36 minutes to get something, Yoshida. We are far from done here." Nana replied.
"Bravado and empty promises will get you nowhere." Maya finished.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"That was a great attempt, Seven! Keep on going!" Kakeru applauded.
"That was a very difficult move to pull off with the ball arriving behind her, but it was a good shot." Juan said.
"We have to think about adding fresh players in the side now. It's one thing to play well, but we need to keep the pressure on them." Kakeru said.
"I'm sure the Boss already has a plan." Juan replied before everyone took a glance at the Manchester United bench a few rows lower, and saw 3 players going towards the touchlines to start warming up.
'Yusuke and Anthony are warming up. That probably means Micki will go off first, and then Yusuke will come on if we need something more incisive from deep midfield.' Kakeru thought.
At that moment in the second half, Southampton did not push that much on the attack as they tried to weather the storm as much as they could. However, the Southampton manager then ordered his players to play a little more forward and to take the slightest opportunity they could find.
In the 61st minute:
Ian Crocker: It's Lemina... He makes the run, but can't find an opening.
Mario Lemina made a run for several yards into the Manchester United half, but then was forced to retreat a little when 3 Manchester United players denied any access in the penalty area. Then the ball was passed on to Maya Yoshida.
Ian Crocker: Yoshida... Romeu... It's back to Lemina on the left.
After Maya passed the ball to Oriol Romeu, the latter then passed the ball towards the Gabonese on the flank. Knowing what was about to happen, Antonio rushed to close down any space for a long ball. However, Lemina launched a long ball towards a Southampton teammate inside the penalty area, who only thought of heading a pass to a teammate in the area.
Ian Crocker: Cédric... GABBIADINI!
Cédric Soares headed the ball as a pass towards Manolo Gabbiadini, who headed the ball into the goal. However, the celebrations were cut short by the referee who saw the linesman's flag up. The Southampton striker was positioned just beyond the last Manchester United defender when Cédric Soares made the pass to him.
Ian Crocker: Flag up against Gabbiadini. It was a great ball by Cédric, but Gabbiadini was offside.
There was a collective sigh of relief inside Old Trafford. The margin was still one goal, but the home side was fortunate it wasn't doubled.
"Damn! That was too close." Robert exclaimed.
"Good thing Köhler saw the play unfold. He called the defenders to push the offside trap forward when he saw the ball fly towards Cédric." Noriko said.
"Valencia had to run fast to make that trap work. If he was a split second late, the Southampton striker would have been onside." Harry remarked.
"I know. It must have been offside only by a few inches." Noriko replied.
"United will need a pair of fresh legs coming on soon." Sayuri said.
"If I were Mourinho, I'd replace Henrikh Mkhitaryan with Anthony Martial. Mkhitaryan has wasted too many balls today." Noriko finished.
And Noriko was spot on. Only less than 4 minutes later, Anthony replaced Henrikh as a ploy to add a more dangerous factor on the wings. As for Southampton, they replaced Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse with veteran Irishmen Shane Long and Steven Davis in the 66th minute. The Saints’ intentions were getting clearer by the minute as they looked to protect the lead.
In the 74th minute:
Ian Crocker: Paul Pogba... Mishima...
Pog passed the ball to Nana, who had to show her back to a Southampton defender. With no room to move forward, Nana passed the ball to Jesse, who then passed it to Anthony on the left wing.
Ian Crocker: Lingard... Here's Martial...
Anthony then tried to cross the ball into the box, but it struck the Southampton defender in front of him. Nevertheless, Jesse retrieved the loose ball in front of the Southampton penalty area. The Englishman spotted Anthony making a clever run off the last defender, and then played the through pass.
Ian Crocker: It's Martial!
As Anthony found himself all alone with the Southampton goalkeeper in the penalty area, The Frenchman took a quick shot, but it was steered away by Fraser Forster. At the very same time to shot was taken, Maya Yoshida came in with a desperate tackle that took Anthony down.
Ian Crocker: Forster foils him again with a crucial save!
Despite the angry shouts of thousands of Manchester United supporters, the referee let the play go on instead of calling a penalty. Meanwhile, an attempted clearance was intercepted by Nemanja, who then tried to launch the ball forward. But again, the ball was cleared towards the halfway line the pitch where Matthias kicked the ball ahead towards Nemanja again.
Ian Crocker: Matić... Anthony Martial is still down in the Southampton penalty area.
Nemanja then passed the ball towards Nana to his right. Then Nana passed it to Pog. Following a quick give-and-go with Nana, Pog took the shot. However, the ball was caught by Forster, which prompted the referee to blow his whistle when he saw Anthony still lying down on the ground.
Ian Crocker: Now Martial can receive some medical attention.
While some Manchester United players protested against the referee as to why a penalty area was not awarded, Nana was the first to check on Anthony's status before the doctor and the physio both arrived on the scene.
"Have you seen what happened?" Steve asked Nana.
"It was a late tackle by Yoshida. The ankle took a heavy hit, so be careful with it." Nana replied.
"We'll take care of this." Steve said.
While the doctor and the physio took a look at the injury, Nana glared into Maya's eyes.
"What?" Maya asked.
"That was reckless, and you know it. You're lucky if anything." Nana replied.
"I was trying to do my job. Besides, I already told you this is our lucky day."
"At the end of this match, I will make sure you will be the one with a long face. Mark my words." Nana was absolutely serious. There were no friendly terms between the 2 Japanese opponents at that moment.
Despite the nasty tackle he took on the ankle, Anthony was able to carry on after receiving some treatment from the medical staff. From that moment forward, the home supporters were growing more and more restless as the visitors still held the one-goal advantage. In response, the Red Devils kept on pushing forward.
In the 80th minute:
Ian Crocker: Here's Matić... to Pogba...
After receiving a pass from Nemanja, Pog dribbled the ball past an opponent before making a little run forward into the Southampton half. The Frenchman then found Romelu in a position to receive a pass.
Ian Crocker: Lukaku... Mishima...
Showing his back to the goal, Romelu made a pass back towards Nana, who then put the ball into Antonio's run. United's Ecuadorian right-back only had one thing in mind: to cross the ball into the Southampton penalty area.
Ian Crocker: A cross by Valencia...
As players from both sides looked to get first to that aerial ball, everyone expected Pog to try having a shot. However, the Frenchman surprised everyone by letting the ball bounce off his head and backwards for a teammate to take a shot.
Ian Crocker: Pogba... into MISHIMA!
As the ball bounced towards the penalty spot, Nana unleashed an immediate strike. Unfortunately though, the shot went off a Southampton player who jumped in the way. As a result, it was a corner kick for the Red Devils.
"F***!" Nana cursed out loud while throwing a forward punch in the air in frustration.
"Come on, Nana! Get a grip. We have a corner kick." Pog said.
Almost right away, Nana ran towards the corner flag where a ball boy gave her the ball. At the same time, a number of players in red entered the Southampton penalty area on the ready to attack.
Ian Crocker: Mishima with the corner.
On the referee's signal, Nana kicked an aerial ball towards the pack of players inside the box. However, the ball was cleared away by a Southampton player before it was retrieved in the middle of the pitch by Eric Bailly.
Ian Crocker: Bailly... finds Matić.
With the need to keep the pressure on, Nemanja immediately sent a long ball towards Nana, who was still lurking on the wing after the corner kick. With plenty of space to pick a pass, the Little Witch cut a low through pass that rolled quickly towards the far post.
Ian Crocker: Well taken by Mishima. She delivers a dangerous cross...
It appeared that Matthias was going to score as he was winning the foot race for the ball. However, Fraser Forster came to the rescue for the Saints once again by stopping the shot from point blank.
Ian Crocker: Forster makes a fantastic save on Köhler!
While all spectators were still shocked by the glorious opportunity that went unconverted, the play continued with Ryan Bertrand attempting to start a counterattack. However, Antonio Valencia managed to tackle the ball out of bounds to stop the rush immediately.
Ian Crocker: Cleared away by Valencia. But how close was that for Manchester United?
After the ball was tackled out of bounds by the Manchester United player, José proceeded with his second substitution of the match. The 4th official showed the number 16 in red and the number 13 in green on the electronic board.
Alan Keegan: Substitution for Manchester United: replacing number 31, Nemanja Matić... number 13, Yusuke Saeki.
The big Serbian ran quickly towards the touchline.
"Good game, big guy." Yusuke gave the double high five to Nemanja.
"Thanks. Get ‘em out there." Nemanja replied.
As Yusuke made his way onto the pitch under the applause and cheers of the Manchester United supporters, one of them only had eyes for the young Japanese player.
"Yusuke's coming on… GANBARE, YUSUKE!" Noriko shouted.
Although Yusuke couldn't hear Noriko, he took a glance towards her in distance. He knew that he had full and unconditional support from her girlfriend in the stands; that was more than enough for him.
'Wish me good luck, Noriko. We will need all of it.' Yusuke thought.
With the last slice of 10 minutes left to go before stoppages, the Saints pulled their players in numbers to defend their own half of the pitch. The Southampton manager also replaced Manolo Gabbiadini with English striker Charlie Austin to ensure some aerial advantage in set pieces. It was becoming more and more difficult for the Red Devils to find the gap that would be converted into a goal. However, as it is often known with Manchester United, it is never over until the fat lady sings.
In the 87th minute:
Ian Crocker: Southampton have a throw-in.
From the Saints' own half, Ryan Bertrand took the throw-in towards his teammate Mario Lemina, who then flicked the ball towards Dušan Tadic. On the move inside the Manchester United half, the Serbian then attempted to pass the ball forward to Charlie Austin. However, the ball was intercepted by Matthias.
Ian Crocker: Towards Austin, but it's intercepted by Köhler.
Matthias then passed the ball towards Eric Bailly, who then passed the ball towards Yusuke to start an attack.
Ian Crocker: Bailly for Saeki...
Spotting the players running in front of him, Yusuke unleashed a long aerial ball forward for Romelu. Although Romelu was jumping between Cédric Soares and Maya Yoshida a few yards outside of the penalty area, the Belgian striker pulled a trick out of his bag by heading the ball to his right and into Jesse's dashing run.
Ian Crocker: It goes towards Lukaku and... ONSIDE!
The Southampton defenders expected an offside call, but it never came as Jesse dashed on his own towards the Saints' goal with a perfectly timed run. With a cool head, the Englishman shot the ball past Fraser Forster and into the back of the net. Old Trafford finally had something to celebrate.
Ian Crocker: JESSE LINGARD! With a little more than 3 minutes go on the clock, Manchester United have finally equalized. It's 1-1.
Jesse picked the ball up, and ran towards the center circle to get the quick restart. At the same time and with little time left to play, José ordered his players to all get across the halfway line ASAP.
"Well done, Jess." Nana gave Jesse a quick high five handshake on the way back.
"Thanks. Let's win this thing."
'A little more than 3 minutes and stoppages left. We can do this. We have to do this.' Nana thought.
In the stands:
"Great play by Rom there to feed Jess." Juan said.
"It started with Yusuke. That was just a perfect tic-tac-toe play between the 3 players." Kakeru replied.
"It's the kind of match where we needed something crazy to work, and it's not finished yet." Juan said.
"Far from it. We can still win this." Kakeru finished.
Having finally cracked Southampton's resistance, the Red Devils were smelling blood. With the Old Trafford crowd roaring in full force, everyone expected at least one last incisive attack from the home side to earn the remaining 2 points that would maintain the gap to 6 with Arsenal. Finally, the action entered stoppage time.
Alan Keegan: The referee has indicated a minimum of 4 minutes of added time.
Manchester United laid a siege on the Southampton goal. The Saints almost pulled all of their players into deep defensive positions while the Red Devils were desperately looking for the crack in the armor.
Ian Crocker: Valencia's cross... into Martial! It's cleared by Cédric.
Antonio attempted a long cross towards Anthony at the far post, but the ball was cleared away by the Southampton defender. It went only as far as out as to Yusuke, who then had to deal with another Southampton player right in front of him.
Ian Crocker: Saeki... Lingard...
With no direct option, Yusuke passed the ball to Jesse, who exchanged attacking positions with Nana momentarily. The Englishman then passed the ball to Nana on the right wing. At that moment, Nana was facing a Southampton player.
Ian Crocker: Here's Mishima.
Finding the perfect moment after slowly closing the gap down with her opponent, Nana then first appeared to attempt a roulette to move past the Southampton defender through the inside. However as the defender shifted his body to block Nana's move, she made a quick second turn towards the outside.
"Witch Turn!" Kakeru exclaimed from the stands.
Ian Crocker: Great turn by Mishima...
With the defender shaken off her, Nana ran a few yards ahead. Once Nana found the right angle, she launched an aerial cross that was destined to go inside the penalty area. At the end of the pass, Romelu used his massive frame to overpower both Maya Yoshida and the other Southampton centre-back in the air. With a clean header of a shot, Romelu sent the ball into the top corner of the goal to send Old Trafford into total pandemonium.
Ian Crocker: LUKAKUUU!!! They've done it!! Romelu Lukaku answers the United S.O.S. – save our season. They are still in the title race! And yet again, it's a case of better late than never for José Mourinho's team.
"Great pass, Witch! A damn great pass!" Romelu pointed towards Nana to acknowledge the quality of the final pass.
"Je savais que tu pouvais le faire (I knew you could do it), Rom! WOO HOO!" Nana came first to mug Romelu before their other teammates arrived to celebrate.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"Great goal, Lukaku! Well done, Nana!" Noriko exclaimed.
"She finally beat the challenge." Sayuri said.
"That turn was pure magic. It never gets old." Robert added.
"If we can hold on, it sets up well for the next League match in 2 weeks." Harry said.
"I know. I'm sure we will win, and we will have that big match." Noriko replied.
From that moment forward, Southampton had nothing left in the tank to try spoiling the New Year party at Old Trafford. The final minutes of injury time winded down with little action to talk about, and the final whistle came as the long-awaited sound of relief that sparked loud cheers from everywhere except for the Southwest corner of the stadium.
PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEP!!!
Ian Crocker: It's over! Manchester United and José Mourinho are not willing to go into the night just yet. For so long, it appeared that Southampton would get away with the 3 points after a courageous performance and a goal from Manolo Gabbiadini in the 5th minute. Romelu Lukaku provided the assist on Jesse Lingard's equalizing goal with less than 4 minutes to go. That was before Lukaku scored the winner in stoppage time at Old Trafford on a great feed by Nana Mishima. United will have to work hard to get closer to Arsenal, but the table is set for a monumental matchup against the Gunners in less than 2 weeks. If José Mourinho's team wins on January 14, then the title race would be blown wide open once again. After a fierce encounter, it finished: Manchester United 2-1 Southampton.
After the Manchester United players celebrated among themselves for a short moment, they went to shake hands sportingly with the Southampton players. Nana first shook hands with Maya Yoshida.
"Good game, Yoshida." Nana said.
"I really have to hand it to you. You made a promise, and you held true to your word." Maya replied.
"What do you mean? It's Lukaku who scored the winning goal."
"Well, you were the one who pulled that move before you found Lukaku in a position where I couldn't stop him. You created that goal, and I eat the dust. You deserve the plaudits." Maya said.
"Well, thank you." Nana replied
"Good game, Saeki." Maya then shook hands with Yusuke.
"Thank you, Yoshida. See you next time with the National Team." Yusuke said.
After a few more handshakes, the Manchester United players walked towards the exit tunnel while showing their appreciation to the fans' support. Finally, the players could breathe a little following a perfect 3-0-0 record in the hectic festive period. Although there were more battles to come, the players earned the right to relax for the rest of that day, the first of the New Year.
West Didsbury, Manchester, UK
6:05 PM GMT
Around an hour after the end of the match, Kakeru and Nana were back at their place. They were followed by Yusuke, who came to see Noriko as the first thing he wanted to do when he got back to their duplex.
"Tadaima!" Kakeru said.
"Okaeri (Welcome home)." Noriko greeted back.
"For my first stretch of 3 matches in England between Christmas and New Year's Day, that was crazy. I really need to relax now." Yusuke said.
"I'm really happy to see you." Noriko hugged Yusuke.
"Me too, Noriko."
"It was hectic, Yusuke. But you survived just as we did since we arrived with the first team." Kakeru said.
"The older players say that you'll get used to it with time." Nana added.
"I hope so." Yusuke said. "So are we supposed to focus on the Arsenal match? As far as I know, our next opponent doesn't seem to be that strong while Arsenal is the team we must beat at all costs."
Noriko then gave Yusuke a little nudge on the side.
"Mind your words there." Noriko said.
At the same time, Kakeru and Nana each frowned at Yusuke. The Japanese midfielder didn't quite understand what was going on.
"What did I say?" Yusuke asked Kakeru and Nana.
"Don't look at us. Noriko is the one who knows better than anyone between us about the game in England." Kakeru said.
"Noriko, I thought our next opponent is Aston Villa. They play in the EFL Championship." Yusuke said.
"It's the FA Cup. In the FA Cup, any team is potentially dangerous. They also have a 5-time FA Cup winner in John Terry." Noriko replied.
"Tell me more about it, Noriko. Seriously, what is it that I should know about?" Yusuke wanted a genuine heads-up on the topic.
"The FA Cup is nothing like any other cup competition you've played before. It's all blood and thunder out there. For the lower clubs, facing a team like United could be the biggest match of the season for them. They would love nothing less than beat us." Noriko said.
"When we won the FA Cup in 2016, we had to go through some tough matches. We needed a late penalty to beat a team from 2 divisions below. We had to go into hostile territory to beat West Ham in a replay of the quarterfinals after we drew 1-1 against them at Old Trafford. In the semi-final, Anthony Martial scored the winner in injury time. In the final, Crystal Palace played a lot better than they usually do in the League, and it took us extra time to win the Cup." Kakeru added.
"Passion, drama, upsets, heroism, glory... it has it all. Many players had great careers in England without winning it once." Nana said.
"I... I didn't know that." Yusuke asked.
"The title of the manga Giant Killing comes from the concept that an underdog beats a strong favorite in sports. The main character started as the manager of an English amateur club, and then had success by taking that team to the 4th round proper of the FA Cup before he went back to Japan to coach East Tokyo United. There are plenty of upsets and stories like that in the FA Cup." Noriko replied.
"Well, I'm really sorry for what I said earlier. I take that back." Yusuke apologized.
"Apology accepted." Noriko gave Yusuke a quick kiss on the cheek.
"We all have to focus first on Aston Villa. There will be plenty of time to think about Arsenal after that." Kakeru said. "I really look forward to get myself fit enough to get back in the squad for that match."
"That's right. I can't wait to see you back on the pitch, Kakeru." Nana said.
"Until we get there, you have to eat first." Noriko said.
"Sounds great to me. What's on for tonight?" Yusuke asked.
"Nana and I thought about making a big Japanese hot pot if we defeated Southampton. Now that it is done, I'm sure we can all enjoy it now." Noriko replied.
"Oden... Isn't that one of your favorite foods?" Yusuke asked Noriko.
"One of the 2 dishes I just cannot resist."
"If you say so." Yusuke said.
"Let's cook it then." Nana said.
"The New Year starts very well for sure." Kakeru finished.