The Oldest Cup Competition
Thursday January 4
Aon Training Complex, Carrington, UK
After the light training session that comes on the eve of the match, Kakeru and Nana were waiting outside of José's office. Yusuke was summoned by the manager before them.
"What do you think the Boss will do with the squad for tomorrow?" Kakeru asked.
"I don't know, but I expect lots of squad rotation. After all, we just played on Monday." Nana replied.
"I only hope I have done enough to get myself into the squad."
"I think you might. You looked really sharp out there today; it has been very good for the last 3 days now." Nana said.
"If I want to be ready for the match against Arsenal, I have to be in the squad tomorrow." Kakeru replied.
Then Yusuke walked out of José's office.
"Are you expected to start tomorrow, Yusuke?" Kakeru asked.
"I'll tell you that later. He's waiting for you two."
"Aizawa, Mishima, come in." José summoned.
Kakeru and Nana then went into the manager's office, and closed the door behind them. Such personal meetings with the manager on the eve of the match usually inform players about what to expect for the match itself.
"I won't take long to tell both of you what I expect of you for the FA Cup match. Just to give you the heads-up, Mishima, you will not be in the squad for tomorrow. Since you played 90 minutes on Monday, I think you are better off with a rest. I want you to focus on the Arsenal game at Old Trafford. Understood?" José said.
"Yes, Boss." Nana replied.
"We already have a ticket for you in the stands if you want to watch the game with the away supporters. Otherwise, you will be with the others in a private box. What do you say, Mishima?" José asked.
"I will take the ticket with the fans."
"Aizawa... your progress has been excellent since you returned to full training. I don't intend to put you in the starting lineup tomorrow, but you will be in the squad against Aston Villa. You can expect some playing time out there. Is that good?"
"Yes, Boss. You won't be disappointed." Kakeru said.
"You look like a man on a mission, Aizawa. That's what I want to see when you'll get on the pitch." José replied. "That's all. Make sure you have everything packed before taking the train."
Kakeru and Nana then walked out of José's office. Emotions were kind of mixed for the young couple.
"Well, I told you that you would be in the squad. It went well." Nana said.
"It's really disappointing for you though." Kakeru replied.
"It sure stings my pride as an athlete. I always want to be out there, but I can understand why he chose to keep me out."
"It will be OK. I look forward to have you in the side against Arsenal." Kakeru gave a comforting tap on Nana's shoulder.
"So, what he tell you?" Yusuke asked.
"The Boss said I'll be in the squad for tomorrow." Kakeru replied.
"As for me, I'll be in the stands. He wants me to be well rested for the Arsenal game." Nana added. "What about you?"
"Well, he said that I will be in the squad, but he will go with experience in midfield. If you ask me, I think he also wants me to be rested for the Arsenal game as well." Yusuke said.
"It's always at this time of the year that a good squad rotation pays dividends come May." Kakeru said.
"Anyway, I'm happy for you that you made the squad, Kakeru. I hope you will get a run onto the pitch." Yusuke replied.
"I trust the Boss on that." Kakeru said.
"By the way, did you buy the tickets for Noriko and Sarah?" Nana asked.
"Yep. I called the people at the club who take care of finding tickets in the away supporters' end, and I told them it's for 2 friends of mine. Noriko really wanted to attend the match. I don't know why. Will you be there?" Yusuke said.
"You bet I'll be there. I have chosen to be with the away supporters." Nana replied.
"Well, you'll get lots of fun in there. Noriko always reminds us how great the atmosphere is with the away supporters." Kakeru said.
"Yeah, that will be quite a good first experience for me. I have never done this before." Nana replied.
"I'll text Noriko to expect your presence in the away end for tomorrow." Yusuke said.
Then Zlatan showed up in the hallway. The big Swedish striker was finally ready to start matches, which would primarily help José in giving Romelu a rest during certain matches in order to keep the Belgian fit for important fixtures ahead.
"Hey, you guys." Zlatan greeted the 3 Japanese players.
"Hi, Ibra!" Kakeru greeted back.
"So, did you make it with the squad?"
"Yep, I'm in there. I guess you're in too, am I right?" Kakeru asked.
"I have been told that I will start the match. I played as a sub a few times since the Watford game a few weeks ago, but it's gonna feel good to start again." Zlatan replied.
"I'm sure you will do well out there. People really can't wait to see you back in the starting lineup." Nana said.
"We'll see. What about you, Witch? Are you in the squad?" Zlatan asked.
"No, I'll be in the stands tomorrow. The Boss will go with a more experienced midfield." Nana replied.
"I guess he's already thinking of Arsenal in some ways."
"He sure does, Ibra, just like me." Kakeru said.
"Keep it for later. We'll talk more about it on the train." Zlatan replied.
"Yep! See you later." Kakeru finished.
A little later, Kakeru and Nana were still at the complex when something unexpected came up. A disgruntled Henrikh was walking in the corridor, followed by Matthias. Kakeru and Nana stood around the corner to listen to the conversation.
"I still don't believe this! I came here to win trophies. We have won things together. I love this city. I love this team." Henrikh said out loud.
"I know. It will sound like me towing the party line, but it could have been worse. The manager over there likes you, and he will find a way to let you play to your strengths." Matthias said. "Besides, you know that the Boss can't afford to be sentimental even though I'm sure he's glad that you helped the club a lot last season. As for me, I'll always be thankful for what you did with us."
"Yeah, thank you. But I will tell you what I already said to the Boss: He's making a mistake... Arsenal will win the League, and I will buy the champagne."
"Viel Glück (Good luck to you)." Matthias said.
"Yeah, good luck to you too." Henrikh said before he walked away.
Then Kakeru and Nana walked their way towards Matthias. The 2 Japanese players had no idea about what was going on.
"Matthias, what is going on?" Kakeru asked.
"We heard you talk with Micki, who said something about Arsenal." Nana added.
Matthias sighed before he started talking. "Fine, but you must not tell a word of this to anyone outside the club until it becomes official. All right?"
"Yeah." Kakeru and Nana replied altogether.
"We are signing Alexis Sánchez from Arsenal, and Micki is going into the other direction. It's a straight swap that should be confirmed some time next week." Matthias said.
"No way!" Nana exclaimed. "Sánchez is one of the toughest opponents we faced in the last few years."
"I don't believe it. How did that happen?" Kakeru asked.
"I can't confirm it, but it looks like the club has been monitoring his contract situation since September. Sánchez's contract ends at the end of the season, and it looks like he was not able to get a new deal at Arsenal. For a long time, I also thought Manchester City would sign him sooner or later because of his past history with Guardiola. Then we came in with an offer and the willingness to pay agent fees." Matthias replied.
"And Micki became the bait, right?" Nana asked.
"Yes. Arsenal asked around £35 million for Sánchez, and that's more than any player leaving with 6 months left to his contract. When you think what Micki cost when we signed him from Dortmund, what he earns weekly, and how many years he has left on his contract, it was good enough to make a straight swap. The Arsenal manager also likes Micki, so there was the sweetener."
"Damn. I knew Micki struggled since early October, but I never thought he would be out of the door so quickly." Kakeru said.
"He was really struggling in the system. I was thinking that it could end not so well, but it's still a real shame." Nana added.
"The media will probably try to spin the move as if Sánchez went for the money, which may be partly true. However, my friends among professional footballers tell me that he genuinely is a Manchester United fan." Mathias replied.
"Well, that's good for all of us." Kakeru said.
"What will Micki do from now on?" Nana asked.
"He will announce it and bid farewell to all of us before we leave. Then he will either stay in Manchester or move to London to sort out remaining contract details. Knowing him from back in Germany, he will shed a few tears when he will speak. I would surely do the same if I was transferred out of United." Matthias replied.
"OK, we'll be prepared and wish him all the best." Kakeru said.
"Remember: not one word until it is official."
"I promise." Kakeru and Nana replied altogether.
Then Kakeru and Nana parted ways with Matthias. The 2 Japanese players were still shocked by the news.
"I still don't believe it." Nana said.
"Me neither, but I realized one thing when Matthias told us the story." Kakeru replied. "The Boss is going hard for the trophies, and that also means we must all do the same."
"If we want to keep our places on the team, we must work harder. So far, we have shown that we can adapt to the Boss' system. However, we have to do it again and again if we want to be among the best."
"You're right. We need to take nothing for granted." Nana said.
"When I'll get back out there, I will make sure no one can take my spot away." Kakeru finished with his own personal pledge.
A few hours later, Kakeru, Nana, Yusuke, and the rest of the Manchester United team left Carrington to Piccadilly Station in Manchester, where they then took the train that goes to the South. Once arrived in Birmingham, the team was set spend the night at a local top class hotel.
The FA Cup, known officially as The Football Association Challenge Cup, is an annual knockout competition in men's domestic English football. First played during the 1871-72 season, it is the oldest competition in the discipline in the world. The competition is open to any eligible club down to Levels 10 of the English football league system – all 92 professional clubs from the Premier League and the 3 divisions of the English Football League (levels 1 to 4), and several hundred teams from steps 1 to 6 of the National League System (levels 5 to 10). The tournament consists of 12 randomly drawn rounds followed by the semi-finals and the final. Entrants are not seeded although a system of byes ensures higher ranked teams to enter in later rounds. The minimum number of matches required to win the competition ranges from 6 to 14.
Beginning in August, the competition proceeds as a knockout tournament throughout. Prior to the semi-finals, fixtures ending in a tie are replayed at the venue of the away team. If that second fixture also ends in a tie, the winner is settled by a period of extra time, and by a penalty shootout if necessary. The first 6 rounds are qualifiers organized on a regional basis, out of which a total of 32 teams progress to the first round proper of the competition. The last entrants to the competition are Premier League and EFL Championship clubs, into the third round proper.
In the modern era, teams from levels 5 to 10 have never reached the quarterfinals, and teams below level 2 have never reached the final. As a result, significant focus is given to smaller teams that progress furthest, especially if they achieve an unlikely "giant-killing" victory. People in England say that the romance of the FA Cup is when a lower ranked club can be drawn against an opponent from a higher division at any time. The true magic of the FA Cup is when the underdog defeats the favorite. No one can ever truly predict what will happen in the FA Cup, which is an integral part of the prestige and tradition of the competition.
For Manchester United, the first FA Cup fixture of their campaign takes place in a venue that has seen a great share of FA Cup history throughout its existence: Villa Park.
Friday January 5
Aston Villa vs. Manchester United (FA Cup 3rd round)
Villa Park, Birmingham, UK
7:32 PM GMT
For this match, Nana was allowed to join the contingent of 5,900+ away supporters who made the trip from Manchester to Birmingham for the occasion. Since Nana arrived in the away supporters' section, she met many of them who follow the club on every away match. From signing a few autographs to taking selfies and shaking hands, she was rather enjoying her time although she would have preferred to be on the 18-player squad.
"Just as I texted you, it is quite the experience to be with the away supporters." Noriko said.
"It's really amazing, I have heard the away support many times before, but it's the first time I can taste such atmosphere." Nana replied.
"What do you think so far of your first time with the away support?" Adam asked Nana.
"I really like it. Thanks. It's something I haven't done often since I signed with United."
"What is that?" Sarah asked.
"Watching a match in the stands and act like a supporter." Nana replied.
"Well, I hope to see you join all of us in the sing-along later." Adam said.
"I will try." Nana replied before she turned to Noriko. "Yusuke and Kakeru are starting on the bench. How do you feel about that?"
"Disappointed for Yusuke, but I see why Mourinho did that." Noriko replied.
"I just hope Yusuke will get the start next week if he doesn't play today. We'll need him against Araki."
"I agree with you, Nana. However, I'm more interested in seeing what Kakeru will do today."
"You're right, Noriko. I'm looking forward to see him at some point in the second half, probably around the 65th or 70th minute if things go according to plan. But should we need to change dynamics in our attack, then he might come on earlier than that." Nana replied.
"Let's see how it goes then." Noriko finished.
"By the way, Yusuke told me that you insisted to be here. Why is that?" Nana asked.
"When it comes to the FA Cup, Villa Park is almost like United's second home. We played so many matches here in the FA Cup, including several semi-finals." Noriko replied.
"For sure, Nana. I watched FA Cup games on TV when United won on this ground in 1999, 2002, twice in 2004, then 2007, and 2008. Before I started watching soccer, my grandfather and my father saw United win FA Cup matches here in 1983, 1995, and 1996. Whenever there's a match involving United in this stadium, you just cannot forget the history."
"Well, I hope the guys will add to that great history here once again today." Nana finished.
Minutes later, José addressed to his players in the dressing room:
"Well, for those of you who may not know it yet, the FA is not just another cup. It's one of the best and toughest cup tournaments in the world. Those among us who spent more years in England will tell you that every FA Cup game is a battle. Aston Villa will try to give their fans a result, but we have a strong team. I know you can get the job done anytime. I want to see drive and commitment, but I also want to see discipline out there. It's all in your hands. Now go out there and push us into the next round."
The Manchester United players then gave a round of applause. On the sound of the bell, the players got up on their feet, and walked out of the dressing room.
"Let's go, lads!" Pog shouted.
"Come on!" Ander added to the shouts.
"Here we go, Yusuke." Kakeru said.
"I can't wait to see this." Yusuke replied.
When the clock hit 2:55 PM, both teams walked out of the tunnel and onto the pitch. The Manchester United field players wore all-black kits for this match. Meanwhile, the Aston Villa field players proudly wore their well-known claret shirts with sky blue sleeves, white shorts with a claret trim, and claret socks. The "Villans", as they are known, were the first club of many in England to adopt the claret and sky blue colors.
For this FA Cup fixture, Guy Mowbray is your commentator.
Guy Mowbray: The United team shows 9 changes from the side that started on Monday against Southampton except for Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard. Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo start at the back. Paul Pogba will lead his team with the captain's armband today. However, the big story is the return of Zlatan Ibrahimović in the starting lineup; it's his first start since last season. Kakeru Aizawa passed the fitness test, and he starts on the bench. Aizawa is United's joint leading scorer alongside Romelu Lukaku with 15 goals in all competitions.
Having in mind the match against Arsenal in one week from then, José decided to field quite an experienced side as followed: Sergio Romero (goalkeeper), Axel Tuanzebe (right-back), Phil Jones (centre-back), Marcos Rojo (centre-back), Matteo Darmian (left-back), Nemanja Matić (central defensive midfielder), Ander Herrera (central midfielder), Paul Pogba (central midfielder and acting captain), Jesse Lingard (right winger), Zlatan Ibrahimović (striker), and Anthony Martial (left winger). For Axel, who is a few years younger than Kakeru, it was an opportunity to show everyone that he can cut it at senior level.
On paper, the name that stood out among the Aston Villa players was John Terry. The former Chelsea captain has been a regular participant in the FA Cup with 5 FA Cup titles and 58 appearances in 19 seasons for the Blues in that particular competition. Although Terry is not as dominant as he once was, he is still a threat on set pieces.
The match started a little slowly as neither side wanted to overcommit itself too early. Although United held the ball for most of the time, the Villans defended their own half with numbers. The first serious scoring chance didn't come before the first quarter of an hour was gone.
In the 17th minute:
Guy Mowbray: So far, Aston Villa have proven to be difficult to crack. United are regrouping at the back. Marcos Rojo...
The Argentine defender Marcos Rojo passed the ball to Pog. From there, the Frenchman ran past the middle circle and inside the Aston Villa half. Looking for a passing option further ahead, Pog saw Jesse making a run. The Frenchman then released a long ball in the direction of his English teammate.
Guy Mowbray: Pogba... Great ball to Lingard...
Running in full speed, Jesse saw the Aston Villa goalkeeper rush towards him. At the same time, John Terry was in pursuit. Instead of taking the shot, Jesse ran past the goalkeeper, and then tried to find a gap in a narrowing shooting angle. However, the following shot ended up hitting the side netting rather than the back of the net.
Guy Mowbray: Around the goalkeeper... but only to hit the side of the net. Lingard will have to wait a little longer to end his goal drought.
On the Manchester United bench, everyone got up on their feet only to fall back into their chairs in disbelief.
"How did we miss that?" Kakeru asked out loud in Japanese.
"That's beyond me. We couldn't ask for a better chance to get the drop on them early enough. Damn it!" Yusuke replied.
"Jess waited for too long before he took the shot." Romelu said.
"Yeah, I know, Rom. He should have shot across the goalkeeper right away rather than going around the keeper. He got trapped by himself." Kakeru said.
"We need to start finishing our chances whenever they come up." Yusuke added.
Although attacking threats to goal were coming few and far between for both sides, United were the first to create another great opportunity to break the deadlock.
In the 29th minute:
Guy Mowbray: Ander Herrera... to Marcos Rojo. He makes a short pass to Anthony Martial.
After receiving a back pass from Ander, Marcos started running a few yards ahead for the ball. Once the Argentine defender ran just past the center circle, he made a short pass to Anthony. The Frenchman then flicked the ball towards Zlatan, who had defenders in front of him.
"Come on, then!" John Terry challenged Zlatan to try going past him.
Nevertheless, the veteran striker saw Anthony running in full speed to get around a defender. At the right moment, the pass did not go begging.
Guy Mowbray: Ibrahimović... Oh, that's a great ball for Martial. What a run!
As Anthony received the ball in his path, the Frenchman already ran past his marker on a direct path for goal. The Aston Villa goalkeeper then rushed forward in a desperate to stop the threat, but Anthony shot an accurate and quick ball that went into the bottom corner of the goal.
Guy Mowbray: Martial goes for the corner... It's in. Anthony Martial has the opening goal for Manchester United. You could say it has been a long time coming.
In the away supporters' end, it was wild euphoria:
"YES! COME ON, UNITED!!!" Noriko and Adam shouted altogether.
"LOVE YOU, MARTIAL!" Sarah was in fangirl mode at that moment.
"That was well played between Ibra and Anthony. Great finish by Anthony too." Nana replied as she applauded the goal.
"I hope the floodgates are open now. We really needed that goal." Noriko said.
"TONY MARTIAL CAME FROM FRANCE..." Adam started the chant alongside a number of United fans in the away supporters' end. Seconds after, Noriko, Sarah, and even Nana joined their voices to the praising of the young Frenchman.
TONY MARTIAL CAME FROM FRANCE
THE ENGLISH PRESS SAID HE HAD NO CHANCE
FIFTY MILLION DOWN THE DRAIN
TONY MARTIAL SCORES AGAIN.
The chant was meant as sarcasm towards what the English media said in 2015 about Anthony when he was bought from French club AS Monaco for the hefty initial fee of £36 million, which then went up to above £50 million when all bonuses were taken into account.
Meanwhile on the Manchester United bench:
"Well done, Anthony!" Kakeru exclaimed.
"Bien joué, Anthony! Tu les as eus, mec! (Well done, Anthony! You got them, man!)" Romelu added.
"If we can add one more without conceding, then we'd be in a good position for the second half." Yusuke said.
"Villa will be forced to open the play. All we have to do is to hit them on the counterattack if any." Kakeru replied.
However, the Aston Villa team was far from being an easy prey. All they needed to do was to earn a corner kick or a free kick to use their strengths on the attack. Before United could get another chance at goal, the locals were starting to build up some momentum.
In the 34th minute:
Guy Mowbray: Foul by Nemanja Matić. Free kick to Aston Villa.
Nemanja tripped an Aston Villa midfielder, and was then given a verbal warning by the referee. However, the main problem for the Red Devils was that the location of the free kick was on the edge of their own defensive third of the pitch. The Villans decided to attempt a long free kick with lots of players attacking the Manchester United penalty area.
The free kick was taken from distance, and the ball first reached an Aston Villa player who attempted to head the ball towards goal. Marcos then blocked the ball, but an unfortunate bounce went off another Villa player. Suddenly, the ball was loose.
Guy Mowbray: Blocked by Marcos Rojo... Only as far as JOHN TERRY! ASTON VILLA EQUALIZE!!! Manchester United's lead lasted only 5 minutes, and it's the former Chelsea man John Terry who scores the goal. It's 1-1.
Villa Park erupted as the locals saw their team come back on the scoreboard. The Villa fans started to believe that an upset could be possible. Meanwhile among the Manchester United players and supporters alike, it was disbelief that reigned.
"Damn! What was that?" Noriko asked out loud.
"An unlucky bounce. Because of that, it was easy for John Terry to score." Sarah replied.
"The lads will need to stay calm now. If we need to, then slowing the game would not be a bad idea." Nana said.
"Yeah. I wouldn't be surprised if Mourinho asks a few substitutes to start warming up soon. That might play a few mind games against Villa with the firepower we have on the bench." Noriko replied.
Meanwhile on the Manchester United bench:
"Man. That really sucks." Kakeru said out loud.
"I thought Marcos would clear that ball too. Last thing we needed was such an easy ball for John Terry." Yusuke replied. "We need to stay calm now."
"I know, Yusuke. But more important is that we need to score the next goal." Kakeru replied.
At that moment, José said something to Rui in the technical area. Seconds later, Rui walked towards the Manchester United substitutes.
"Aizawa... Warm up." Rui ordered.
Without further due, Kakeru left the bench, and made his way by the touchlines. Despite a few taunts from Aston Villa supporters, Kakeru was not fazed as he started his stretching exercises. Meanwhile, Kakeru's presence at the side of the playing surface was spotted by Nana.
"Kakeru is starting to warm up." Nana said.
"He's the first to warm up, so it must be a good sign for him." Sarah added.
"I hope Kakeru will get the first nod from Mourinho." Noriko said.
"I would also put Kakeru in first as well. I think our attack needs a little spice out there." Nana finished.
After the equalizing goal, the rest of the first half was a stalemate with both sides barely exchanging shots that were not dangerous for the goalkeepers. The happier side certainly was Aston Villa as they stood only one goal away of accomplishing a major upset. Although the 1-1 scoreline would be a concern for the Manchester United supporters, the main talking point among them was about what time Kakeru would finally step onto the pitch in a competitive match for the first time since the last Manchester derby. Everyone was hoping Kakeru would have a decent cameo at the very least when the time would come.
After José gave his players a halftime team talk in which he asked his players to put more pressure against their opponents, Kakeru, Yusuke, and the other substitutes made their way onto the pitch to warm themselves up with various exercises, passes, and a few shots on goal during what was left of halftime. In the stands, Nana and her friends had their eyes towards Kakeru.
"He was warming up before halftime, and he keeps on going now. What do you say, Nana?" Noriko asked in Japanese.
"So far, he looks really sharp in his warmup routine. If we still need a goal, Kakeru will come in around the hour mark." Nana replied.
"I really can't wait to see Kakeru back in action, Nana." Sarah said.
"I'm sure he feels the same as all of us do."
"Hopefully, he will get the rust off quickly too." Noriko said.
'Kakeru rarely looks like being rusty.' Nana thought.
"I guess he would replace Jesse Lingard if Kakeru comes on." Sarah said.
"I'm sure he will. Lingard has been horrible today anyway." Noriko finished.
The second half started with both teams trying to find the right pace. As José ordered his men earlier, United were pushing the action deep in Aston Villa's half of the pitch. However, Aston Villa were looking to capitalize on the few sustained attacks they could build up.
In the 55th minute:
Guy Mowbray: Long ball deep in United's end… It's towards Scott Hogan...
Starting from the other way of the halfway line, Aston Villa used a direct attacking route with a long ball towards their striker. Arriving a few yards in front of the Manchester United penalty area, the Aston Villa player feinted to go around defender Phil Jones on the outside before turning on the inside instead, With the Villa striker almost in a position to shoot through the gap, Nemanja was forced to take his opponent down from behind.
Guy Mowbray: Taken down by Nemanja Matić. It's a free kick for Aston Villa.
As if conceding the direct free kick was not bad enough because of its dangerous location, things looked worse when Nemanja received a yellow card for the tackle. Not wasting any more time, both teams moved into their respective positions ahead of the free kick. When everyone was set, the referee blew his whistle.
Guy Mowbray: Lansbury with the free kick.
The Aston Villa midfielder then took the shot, but the ball was immediately cleared by a defender before it could reach a Villa player. As the rebound went back towards the location of the free kick taker, Ander threw his body in an attempt to block a second shot. As a result, the shot was deflected behind for a corner kick.
Guy Mowbray: Blocked by Herrera. It's a corner in the 58th minute.
When the ball entered into the penalty area, Villa's midfielder Leandro Bacuna reached the ball before the Manchester United defenders. The man from Curaçao struck a clean header that gave no chance to Sergio Romero. And suddenly, it was Aston Villa in the lead!
Guy Mowbray: IT'S IN! Aston Villa are in the lead! It's a header goal by Leandro Bacuna!
While some Manchester United players and most of the away supporters were standing silent with worried faces, José decided not to wait any longer to play his ace.
"Aizawa, you're in." José ordered.
"Yes, Boss!" Kakeru replied.
Kakeru then went on to take his jacket and his training pants off. Before Kakeru was set to go, he was given a few more instructions by the manager.
"I want to you to go at their centre-backs when we're on the attack. They will get tired. Use your speed, and get in behind them. Ready?" José said.
"Just another day at the office." Kakeru simply replied.
"Give them a run for their money." José finished.
Guy Mowbray: Here is a big moment. Kakeru Aizawa replaces Jesse Lingard before the hour mark. José Mourinho looks to inject some attacking flair.
The Japanese forward immediately ran towards his assigned position at right wing.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"GANBARE, KAKERU!!!" Nana shouted.
"He's finally back." Noriko said.
"It's about time. He can't do worse than the guy he replaced." Sarah said.
"Certainly not." Nana replied. "I have a feeling he will make it like he ws never gone."
"Let's see him go now." Noriko said.
On the restart, United immediately sent players on the attack in the Aston Villa half of the pitch. After a few passes, Kakeru made a run past a defender to enter the Aston Villa penalty area. At the same time, Ander launched a through pass.
Guy Mowbray: Here's Aizawa. He's in some space...
The Japanese forward was picking a good shooting position inside the penalty area. However, John Terry intervened by deflecting the ball out of bounds before it could reach Kakeru. Nevertheless, it was a corner kick for Manchester United.
Guy Mowbray: Cleared away by Terry. Corner for Manchester United.
Inside the Aston Villa penalty area, players were moving into position. However, John Terry was trying to mark Kakeru.
"Don't think about it, Aizawa." Terry said.
"It's weird to see you in a Villa shirt, but I still see you like a Chelsea rival." Kakeru replied.
"I'll be smashing you at the end of the day."
"If your mark him, then I'll be marking you." Zlatan stepped in. The Swede was at least 2 inches and a half taller than the former Chelsea defender. A split second before the kick, Kakeru was starting to run circling runs while Zlatan went into a 1v1 confrontation with John Terry.
Ander kicked the ball that swirled towards the edge of the 6-yard box. Pog came to head the ball, and redirect it as much as possible towards the goal. In the next split second, Kakeru struck the ball with aplomb to make the result undisputable.
Guy Mowbray: Tipped by Pogba... it's AIZAWAAA!! It's 2-2! He's just came on before Aston Villa took the lead, and now has equalized for United. Aston Villa's lead lasted for less than 2 minutes.
Immediately after the goal, Kakeru claimed the ball before he took it towards the center circle.
"Good goal, Knight!" Ander congratulated Kakeru.
"Thanks, Ando. Let's go for the next goal now."
"That's the right attitude." Pog said.
"Thanks, Pog." Kakeru replied.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"GREAT GOAL, KAKERU!!!" Nana shouted.
"WELCOME BACK AMONG THE GOALS, KAKERU!!!" Noriko added.
"COME ON, UNITED!!!" Adam added to the shouts in the noise coming from the 5,900+ United supporters who made the trip.
"That was a clever run in the area by Kakeru." Sarah said.
"Kakeru really knows how to make himself a slippery bugger. That has always been one of his strengths since I started watching him grow as a player." Noriko replied.
"And don't forget Zlatan in that too. He shielded Kakeru away from John Terry with ease." Nana said.
"Let's hope this has deflated Aston Villa, and also boost us for what's coming next." Noriko said.
"I'm sure he will do more damage." Nana finished.
After the 2-2 goal, United continued to pin the Aston Villa players down in their own half. Again the Villans worked as hard as they could to keep their hopes alive, but it was becoming increasingly difficult against a Manchester United side that was reinvigorated by the return of one of its most dangerous players. Before everyone knew it, Kakeru was the one to lead the charge again.
In the 63rd minute:
Guy Mowbray: Here's Martial. He can't find the gap... now to Pogba.
The Manchester United players were passing the ball around within the Aston Villa half. After Pog received the ball from Anthony, the following pass went towards Ander on the right. Almost immediately, Ander passed the ball back into Pog, who then slotted a ball towards Zlatan as the latter started rushing towards the Aston Villa penalty area.
Guy Mowbray: It's towards Ibrahimović...
As everyone expected the Swedish striker to go all the way with a shot, Zlatan spotted Kakeru to his right. The Japanese forward was left totally unmarked on the edge of the penalty area for a moment. As a result, Zlatan passed the ball to Kakeru.
Guy Mowbray: Aizawa... He goes again...
Realizing that a gap was open, John Terry tried rushing towards Kakeru.
"I'll crush you!" Terry shouted.
Kakeru then took the shot past John Terry's attempted block, beyond the reach of the goalkeeper, and into the bottom corner of the goal. The outcome left all of Villa Park stunned and silent but for the 5,900+ people associated with Manchester United.
Guy Mowbray: HE SCORES AGAIN! United are back in front! Talk about an immediate impact on the game, Kakeru Aizawa has turned the match around with 2 goals in 3 minutes. Aston Villa are shell-shocked.
In the ensuing celebration, Kakeru ran towards the away supporters section before he was mobbed by his teammates. Everyone wearing black shirts on the pitch also celebrated in front of their faithful away support group.
"You did it!" Ander ruffled Kakeru's hair.
"I knew you could do it, Knight! Way to go!" Pog congratulated Kakeru with a big hug.
"Thanks guys!" Kakeru replied.
"That's a big goal! Well done." Zlatan also congratulated Kakeru. "Let's finish the job."
"Great pass, Ibra! Let's go kill this thing!" Kakeru replied.
After the players stopped celebrating, Kakeru took his gaze towards Nana's location in the stands, pointed towards her, and then made a heart-shaped hand gesture. In return, Nana waved towards Kakeru from the stands with a big smile.
"WAY TO GO, KAKERU!!!" Nana shouted.
"NICE GOAL, KAKERU!" Noriko added.
"He already scored 2 goals today; that makes 17 goals for him in the campaign so far. He's on fire." Sarah said.
"I know. That's the kind of impact he wanted to have on his return." Nana replied.
"I thought he would be rusty, but he plays as if he was never injured. It's astonishing!" Adam said.
"He will never cease to amaze me, Adam." Noriko replied.
"You think he can go for the hat-trick, Kate?" Adam asked.
"We will see. We have 27 minutes and stoppages to find out." Noriko finished.
Suddenly in the away supporters' end, the Manchester United fans started praising Kakeru with a brand new song for him. The impromptu performance was a catchy one that followed the tune of Agadoo, which was also used in the past for a former Manchester United player named Anderson. As fan songs often do, the new chant contained a little bit of banter.
AIZAWA, WA, WA, HE'S BETTER THAN KAGAWA
AIWAWA, WA, WA, HE'S A RED AND WHITE NINJA
TO THE LEFT, TO THE RIGHT, HE'S A BLOODY DYNAMITE
WHEN HE PLAYS FOR THE REDS, HE MAKES VERNARDI LOOK SHITE.
With Manchester United back in the driver's seat, the Aston Villa players started pushing forward in an attempt to get back on terms on the scoreboard. However, it was exactly what José and his players wanted with one purpose in mind: hit back at the opposition swiftly and hard.
In the 69th minute:
Guy Mowbray: Aston Villa with the free kick.
The Aston Villa player launched the ball inside the Manchester United penalty area from an indirect free kick. However, a Manchester United defender cleared the ball away and towards the center circle. The ball was then chested down Zlatan, who then passed the ball forward and on the left for Anthony.
Guy Mowbray: Cushioned by Ibrahimović. Now it's going towards Martial...
Anthony then dashed in full speed towards the Aston Villa half. On a speedy counterattack, the Aston Villa defenders were not sure on how to react since Zlatan and Kakeru also followed Anthony in developing 3v2 situation.
Guy Mowbray: Martial on the left-hand side... towards Aizawa on the right...
Anthony sent the ball to Kakeru, who beat the offside line on the flank. When Kakeru saw that Zlatan was going to get ahead of John Terry, the Japanese forward immediately passed the ball towards the Swede.
Guy Mowbray: Perfect ball... It's Ibrahimović!
Zlatan easily tapped the ball past the Villa goalkeeper and gave his team the 2-goal cushion they needed.
Guy Mowbray: What a goal! It's a goal for Zlatan Ibrahimović on his return in the starting lineup! Two goals and an assist for Aizawa; he has carved Aston Villa wide open since he came on, and United have widened the gap between them and Aston Villa in this FA Cup tie.
At the same time the Manchester United players were celebrating the 4-2 goal on the pitch, it was bedlam in the away supporters' end. After a few ups and downs, the Manchester United supporters could finally breathe a collective sigh of relief.
"Good goal, Zlatan!" Noriko shouted.
"Great combo, you guys!" Nana added.
"That was a vintage United counterattack. It just never gets old." Sarah said.
"You're right. I have seen that kind of pattern a few times before, especially under Fergie." Noriko replied.
"That's the kind of stuff Kakeru and I practiced a few times in physical education classes too. Not to brag about it, but we played like that because we were better than the rest of our class." Nana said.
"I never thought that you wouldn't try stuff like that." Noriko replied.
"We can breathe easier now. That's the most important part." Sarah said.
"Play simple and avoid problems. That's the job to do now." Nana finished.
A few seconds later, the vast majority of the Manchester United supporters started singing the song that first appeared after Zlatan signed from Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) as a free agent. It was an appropriate praise for the man who became an instant favorite back then.
ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIĆ, HE IS A SWEDISH HERO
ON A FREE FROM PSG, HE COST US ****ING ZERO
SIX FOOT FIVE, HARD AS ****, HE GETS THE REDS EXCITED
STICK YOUR CITY UP YOUR ARSE, 'CAUSE WE'RE MAN UNITED!
WE ARE MAN UNITED! WE ARE MAN UNITED!
From that point forward in time, the intensity in the match inevitably dropped. The Aston Villa made a couple of substitutions hoping to find a spark somewhere. However, José replaced Pog and Ander with rookie Scott McTominay and Juan respectively. On his return from injury, the little Spaniard Juan Mata was warmly applauded by the Manchester United fans. For several minutes, there was no dangerous action from either side.
In the 84th minute:
Guy Mowbray: Headed down by Bacuna.
In an attempt to keep the attack in the Manchester United half, Leandro Bacuna chested the ball down, and passed the ball to his teammate at right-back. The Aston Villa right-back then spotted a teammate making a run between Marcos and Matteo.
Guy Mowbray: Good through ball for Bjarnason!
Entering the Manchester United penalty area, Icelandic forward Birkir Bjarnason struck the ball across Sergio Romero and into the goal. However as the Aston Villa supporters started celebrating what seemed to be the goal bringing the score closer to United, the referee cut the celebrations short. At the same time, the linesman put his flag up.
Guy Mowbray: Aston Villa are back in it... Wait! The flag is up. Bjarnason was offside.
As TV replays showed the incident, the Aston Villa player was coming back from an offside position when he received the pass. As a result, the goal didn't count, much to the dismay of the home supporters.
In the away supporters' end:
"That was a close one." Nana said.
"The last thing we needed something that gives Villa a boost with a little more than 6 minutes and stoppages left to play." Noriko replied.
"We just need to play the boring game to snuff them out. I'm sure that is what the Boss is shouting on the touchline right now." Nana finished.
After that unsuccessful last hurrah from Aston Villa, United retained control of the ball for most of what was left of the match. As for Kakeru, he was still looking for one opportunity to complete his hat-trick. Before the final whistle, Kakeru found that opportunity.
In the 89th minute:
Guy Mowbray: Mata... finds Aizawa.
Juan passed the ball towards Kakeru to start a counterattack. As the Japanese forward ran past the halfway line, he then passed the ball to Zlatan on the left.
Guy Mowbray: Now, it's Ibrahimović...
When Zlatan made the run, and arrived short of the Aston Villa penalty area, the Swede made a backward pass to Pog. Picking the right time and place, Pog made a cheeky lob pass towards the running Kakeru in front of goal.
Guy Mowbray: It's played towards Aizawa...
Kakeru put his body in a position to hit a half-volley shot with his left foot. As he struck the ball, everyone expected a goal. However, the ball rolled a little too far across the goal post.
Guy Mowbray: He's missed the target! And that doesn't happen often.
Kakeru put his hands on his head in total disbelief. He couldn't believe he missed that opportunity.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"Dang! That's a big shame!" Nana exclaimed.
"I really thought that was the moment for Kakeru." Sarah said.
"I thought the same. He scored hat-tricks with the U21s in the past, but never scored a hat-trick at senior level so far." Noriko added.
"I know Kakeru would like to score a hat-trick for the first time in his senior career, but I wouldn't hold it against him today." Nana replied.
"Right. He scored so many decisive goals and important assists for us, and he just came back from a bad injury as well. Scoring a hat-trick today would have been the stuff of dreams too far." Noriko said.
"He's done more than enough today. Thanks to him, we are in a very good spot now." Nana finished.
Even without scoring a third goal, Kakeru's contribution made a world of difference. Since the 4-2 goal, the Manchester United players finished the game off without a fuss. The final whistle finally sounded the end of the agony for the home side.
PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEP!!!
The contingent of 5,900+ Manchester United supporters cheered at the final whistle while the remaining Aston Villa supporters remained silent. A big portion of the Aston Villa supporters had already left the stadium when it was clear that there would be no way back.
"I have to give it to you, Aizawa. You really cut us to pieces after you came on." John Terry shook hands with Kakeru.
"I've been looking forward to play today's match for a month now. Someone told me that what matters is how I come back from my injury. I guess I pushed my own limits."
"Well, you made a great entrance today." Terry replied.
"Playing against you is always a challenge to enjoy because I have a lot of respect for you. I hope Aston Villa will be back in the Prem for next season." Kakeru replied.
"Thanks. Good luck in the FA Cup and in the Premier League, Aizawa." Terry finished.
After the handshakes and a brief post-match celebration with the away supporters, the Manchester United players left the pitch. As for Nana, her time in the stands came to an end as she was about to meet up with her teammates.
"So, are you joining Kakeru and the others now?" Noriko asked.
"Yep. I'll see you later when we'll get back in Manchester." Nana replied.
"I see. I'll keep a table for all of us four and Sarah." Noriko said.
"See you later then, Nana." Sarah said goodbye for now.
"Sure. See you later, girls." Nana replied to Sarah before turning towards Adam. "It was a pleasure to meet you, M. McKola."
"Same for me, Ms. Mishima. You're always welcome to join the away supporters if you're not in the squad for a match outside Old Trafford." Adam replied.
After that, Nana left on her way to join her teammates. Around 5:20 PM, a refreshed Kakeru came to meet up with Nana by the bus.
"Come here, Kakeru." Nana greeted Kakeru with a kiss. "Two goals and an assist... You were fantastic."
"Thanks. I really felt good out there, so I'm happy." Kakeru said.
"It was a near perfect script for your return. I don't think anyone could ask for much better."
"Hey, Nana." Yusuke greeted Nana.
"Hey. How are you feeling?" Nana asked.
"I wished I played, but I can't complain since the team played so well after Kakeru came on." Yusuke replied.
"You have a full rest that will help for the Arsenal game."
"You're right, Nana." Yusuke said. "By the way, what were our fans singing after Kakeru's second goal just as they do now? The tune was catchy though."
"It's a song that praises Kakeru. Noriko told me that it follows the tune of an old song named Agadoo. It's a great sign of fan appreciation." Nana replied.
"Is this the first time you have a song about you, Kakeru?" Yusuke asked.
"Now that you mention it, it is." Kakeru was a little embarrassed.
"I guess that makes me and you even." Nana said.
"I guess so." Kakeru replied. "Man, I can't wait to be back in downtown Manchester with the others for a nice evening meal and drink."
"Let's get on our way then. I can't wait either." Yusuke finished.
Sunday January 7
West Didsbury, Manchester, UK
6:08 PM GMT
On that day, Kakeru, Nana, Yusuke, and Noriko watched some the other broadcasted FA Cup matches that were played since the early afternoon. Around the early evening, they just witnessed Arsenal defeating their opponent of the day at the Emirates Stadium with a score of 5-0, and thus advancing to the next round. The match itself was also an opportunity for Kakeru and his friends to analyze their next Premier League opponents... or so they thought.
"Well, it's almost as if Arsenal did not have to sweat to get the result. They didn’t even play Alexis Sánchez." Kakeru said.
"The other team didn't really give too much for Arsenal to worry about. We can forget this match if we wanted to see how a team can create problems for Arsenal." Nana replied.
"If anything, this match provided lots of information on what NOT to do against Arsenal though. The other team really handed the goals on a silver plate to Arsenal." Noriko said.
"It's the Oda-Araki-Jenpa axis that does most of the damage for them. If we can find all kinds of ways to disrupt that axis for the whole game, then it would easily be the key to beat them on next week." Yusuke added.
"You're right, Yusuke. Jenpa may provide something a little different from what I did up front in high school, but the way the 3 players perform is very reminiscent of what we used to do at Enoshima. Oda starts the attack after a tackle, then Araki lets his flair speak for itself behind the striker, and then the striker finishes the job if any." Kakeru said.
"Jenpa will give a handful to our defenders. That's almost certain." Noriko remarked. "Yusuke can put up the fight to Araki, but the most important part will be how Köhler and whoever his partner will be can contain him."
"Don't count me out though. I can hold my own against anybody at both ends of the pitch. If it comes down to it, Pog and I can take on Oda-san." Nana replied.
"I can't wait to have a run at them again as well." Kakeru finished.
A few minutes later on the FA Cup post-game broadcast, Patrick Jenpa was giving his reactions about the match.
TV reporter: Patrick... You scored two goals today. You are quite in form, aren't you?
Patrick: Yes, I'm really pleased. With the things going so well for the team, I'm glad to play a big part in the team's success. The first goal was from a great pass by Ryuichi. The second took a deflection, but that's football.
TV reporter: Arsenal haven't lost a match since October. You won 5-0 today. What kind of message does it send to the rest of English football?
Patrick: Whenever we come out of the tunnel, we always work our way to get the 3 points regardless of what happens. We're in the next round, and we are in a good position at the top of the Premier League. You can mark my words though: we will go out there, and we will put ourselves further ahead of our nearest rivals next week.
"What the hell?" Yusuke asked out loud, obviously surprised by Patrick's arrogant reply.
"He's smirking as well. That arrogant son of a..." Noriko was about to curse.
"Hold it." Kakeru asked everyone to keep it quiet.
TV reporter: Your 2 goals today took you back on top as the best goal scorer in the country. With a long way to go to the season and with Kakeru Aizawa back from injury, isn't that premature to dismiss your rivals' chances?
Patrick: We worked hard to maintain consistency worthy of any team of champions so far. We are the dominant side at the moment, and we will show it again very soon by finishing off what we started in September. With all due respect to Kakeru Aizawa, he will fall second to me. I always give my team a chance to win rather than rely that much on flukes. Actions will always speak louder on the pitch. Our next encounter will show everyone who is the best marksman in England. It will end there once and for all, on their turf.
TV reporter: Well... Thank you for your time, Patrick.
Patrick: Thank you.
Disgusted by Patrick's reply, Kakeru turned the TV off before he slammed the remote on the table in sheer frustration.
"That's equivalent to him spitting on all of us, that bastard!" Kakeru cursed.
"I can't get how he can dare saying something that fiery with a straight face on television ahead of the next match. What a stuck-up piece of trash!" Nana said.
"Would you say that you two have that same feeling as in September after the match at the Emirates?" Noriko asked.
"No, it's even worse than being very angry because of him. I'm pissed off!" Kakeru replied.
"Same for me, Noriko. I really want to shove that pompous SOB's words down the throats of the whole Arsenal team." Nana added.
"I really want to make life even more miserable for him and his teammates now. This is war." Yusuke stood up with his fists clenching.
"I see. You feel that anger and you think about making them pay now that he threw the first jab. This is the first step of feeding off the hatred of your opponents. It can be a very powerful weapon when it's used in the right way and to its full potential." Noriko replied.
"Noriko. Back in September, you told us that you would help us in our mental preparation when the time comes. Now that time has come. What did you have in mind?" Kakeru asked.
"I knew you would ask for my help. What I prepared is a whole stock of video files showing what the rivalry between United and Arsenal was at its peak. It's about how far players from that rivalry were willing to fight to win a match, even if it led to lots of flashpoints. There are plenty of good quotes and stories about how much both sides hated each other as well. The lessons of the past can help you in becoming even more ruthless." Noriko replied.
"So be it." Nana said.
"I'm in." Yusuke added.
"Let's do this." Kakeru also added.
"Very well. By the time you integrate those lessons, you will be ready to go on the warpath. They will never expect such intensity from you guys." Noriko finished.
From that moment forward into the next 6 days, Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke started to "educate" themselves on the fierceness of the Manchester United vs. Arsenal rivalry between 1996 and 2006 – an era when every encounter between the two sides was a battle in the trenches. With Jenpa's words adding fuel to the fire, the 3 Japanese players used them as a strong source of motivation ahead of a monumental fixture. The status of the race for the Premier League trophy was at stake, but little did anyone know that the match would be one that fans of a certain age would deem worthy of the old days.