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Sea of Red in Saitama

Following their victory in Yokohama, Manchester United continued their pre-season training for a few more days in Japan. But unlike they did with Yokohama F. Marinos, United were set to face a very different kind of opposition in the context of the International Champions Cup.

Founded in 2013, the International Champions Cup is an annual football exhibition competition that features teams from Europe playing pre-season friendly matches. Initially set in the United States and Canada, venues were added in Asia, Australia, Mexico, and across Europe since. Each of the participating clubs plays 3 friendly matches against European opponents. Having already defeated AC Milan a week before, the Red Devils were set to face Arsenal.

For this encounter, United moved to the northern part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area in Saitama. The venue is considered to be the Japanese National Stadium until the new Tokyo Olympic Stadium is built. For Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke, representing their club in that stadium was a very special moment. However, there was a Japanese player at Arsenal who was also relishing the same feeling.


Saturday July 28

Manchester United vs. Arsenal (Pre-season match 4)

Saitama Stadium 2002, Saitama, Japan

In the late afternoon, the Manchester United team bus made its way on the Tohoku Expressway. Kakeru was thinking hard about the upcoming match as the fixture was about to be special for personal reasons.

"Hey, Kakeru. Still thinking about that new player for Arsenal?" David de Gea, the team's number 1 goalkeeper, asked.

"Yep! Ryuichi Araki is one my best friends since our days in the same high school team. I knew I might play a match against his side one day, but I never thought it would happen in my home country. I'm really excited."

"When he played as the number 10 behind Kakeru, they were almost invincible together. That's why I'm sure Araki wants to perform well tonight." Nana added to Kakeru's reply.

"Well, I'd be happy to stop him if he tries. It will be my first start, and I'm planning to do well." David said.

"Absolutely." Kakeru replied.

After the Spaniard went back to his seat, Yusuke joined Kakeru and Nana in the conversation. "I guess it feels as if it was just yesterday that Araki-san was still your teammate at Enoshima."

"It sure does." Kakeru replied.

"He took quite a different route in Europe before he arrived at Arsenal. It seems to me that French football was a perfect fit for him, so I was surprised that he chose to go to England." Yusuke said.

"True, but I guess he felt it was the right time to take on a new challenge." Nana replied. "In any case, it will help in raising the skill level in the national team if he succeeds in the Premier League."

"We'll wait and see. As for me, I'll enjoy taking on him just like in the old days again."

"I'm sure you will, Yusuke." Kakeru finished.

Finally, the bus left the expressway to make its way to Saitama Stadium. Moments later, the Manchester United players got off the bus and then entered the stadium. Inside the corridor leading to the home team's (and United's for the day) dressing room, Kakeru and Nana met familiar faces from their Enoshima days. Kaoru Matoba and Michirou Takase were players for the hometown Urawa Red Diamonds, who won a J-League match on the day before.

"Hi, Kakeru! How are you doing?" Kaoru asked.

"Doing great so far. I've heard you and Takase are quickly becoming fan favorites in Saitama." Kakeru replied while hugging his friend.

"We make the most of the chances we have." Takase said. "Looks like you're ready for the new season too, Nana-chan."

"Thanks, but I will only feel ready for sure when we'll start the Premier League campaign on August 11." Nana replied as she shook hands with the former Enoshima High School giant.

"Where are you watching the match tonight?" Kakeru asked.

"We and a number of Urawa players will watch it from a private box up there." Kaoru replied.

"Good, good." Kakeru said. "Speaking about you, I've heard that you two could join the national team soon. What do you think about that?"

"It would be great, but we aren't taking anything for granted. After all, we never played as representatives before." Kaoru replied.

"I feel the same as Kaoru. We still have to work harder before we can get there." Takase added.

"And I know you can. You two are proud competitors with skills that not many Japanese representatives have." Kakeru said.

"Nice to hear it, Kakeru." Kaoru replied.

"Well, we have to go. Enjoy the match." Nana said.

"Yeah, sure! See you some time." Kaoru replied.

"Good luck out there, Kakeru." Takase added.

"See you soon, guys." Kakeru finished.

Then Kakeru and Nana parted ways with their friends. In the following 2 hours, the players prepared themselves for this important match as it was a last chance to make an impression for some, or a chance to solidify their starting positions for others. Andrew told Kakeru that he would be playing for the whole match.

Just before leaving the Manchester United dressing room for the match, Andrew made one final speech to his players:

"OK, lads. I know this is the last game abroad. I know you can't wait to fly to England. But still, this is an important match that will tell who could start the first match in the League. On the other side, we have Arsenal. We did quite well against them in the past, but make no mistake. They will think of doing well with a new manager. But that doesn't matter if we play our game. We go hard on them, we get the ball back, and we counterattack. If we don't have the ball, we fall back together. Commitment. Let's go!"

"YES, BOSS!" all players replied in unison as they applauded their manager.

Minutes later, both teams lined up inside the tunnel, waiting for the signal to go ahead. Standing at the end of the line, Kakeru (starter) and Nana (substitute) met their old friend Ryuichi Araki. The former Enoshima High School students took a few moments to have a little chat together.

"Yo, Kakeru!" Araki greeted.

"Araki-san." Kakeru replied. "Nice to see you."

"Glad you made it for the match." Nana added.

"Thanks. I'm glad to see you too." Araki replied.

"What's going on, Araki? You're not starting the match?" Kakeru asked.

"No, I'm starting on the bench for now. The coach is starting Mesut Özil instead. After everything that happened after the World Cup, I guess everyone wants to help him putting his problems behind quickly. But that doesn't mean that I don't want his job." Araki replied.

"Well, that's nice. Still, I look forward to play against you later." Nana said.

"I hope to get a few minutes tonight." Araki replied.

"Let's play a good match today." Kakeru said.

Then former Tokyo Soccer Academy and current Cameroon international, Patrick Jenpa, turned his gaze behind him to look at Kakeru. Patrick was wearing an uncharacteristic number 99 in the back because the number 9 was already worn by Alexandre Lacazette at Arsenal.

"Don't think that we will hold back because it's a friendly match, Aizawa. We have a settle to score as to who is the best striker between you and I ever since your team of outsiders beat my team in the National High School Tournament final back then." Patrick said. His Japanese was still good after all of those years.

"Just don't get on your high horses because you got transferred from the French league on a big fee. I'm still 1-0 against you." Kakeru retorted.

"We'll see. I think the real threat on your team is Lukaku, but he's not playing today. So I guess I'll have all the fun." Jenpa replied with a blatant touch of arrogance before he looked ahead again.

"That guy..." Nana said, obviously displeased by the arrogant remark.

"He's not exactly wrong, you know. Sure, he talks a lot. However, his actions are backing his words." Araki replied. "We'll fight to win this match even if it's pre-season."

"Well, expect the same from me then." Kakeru finished with a little smile.

Seconds later, the referees arrived to lead both teams out of the tunnel. They were greeted by more than 63,000 spectators, with the overwhelming vast majority wearing red. Whether the fans wore Manchester United's full red shirts in majority, Arsenal's red torso shirts with white sleeves in the minority, or even the local Urawa Red Diamonds' red shirts, the sight inside Saitama Stadium was one of a sea of red.

The field players for Manchester United proudly wore their home kit consisting of a red shirt, black shorts, and black and red socks. For a very rare time, United's home kit for the season had black shorts instead of the traditional white shorts. On the other hand, Arsenal's field players showcased a fully turquoise kit as their official third kit to contrast with their opposition.

For Manchester United, the starting lineup showed a 4-1-2-1-2 formation as followed: David de Gea (goalkeeper), Antonio Valencia (right-back and captain), Eric Bailly (centre-back), Chris Smalling (centre-back), Luke Shaw (left-back), Andreas Pereira (defensive midfielder), Ander Herrera (central midfielder), Scott McTominay (central midfielder), Juan Mata (attacking midfielder), Kakeru Aizawa (striker), and Alexis Sánchez (left forward). Nana and Yusuke were among the substitutes on the bench. For David, it was his first start of the pre-season. Other players arrived from their post-World Cup vacation, but they only started training with the team not long ago. Hence the depleted lineups on both sides.

On the other side, Arsenal started the following 4-2-3-1 setup: Bernd Leno (goalkeeper), Héctor Bellerin (right-back), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (centre-back), Shkodran Mustafi (centre-back), Sead Kolašinac (left-back), Aaron Ramsey (central midfielder and acting captain), Mohamed Elneny (central midfielder), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (right winger), Mesut Özil (attacking midfielder), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (left winger), and Patrick Jenpa (striker). Unlike United, Arsenal had most of their players available as not many of them played in knockout rounds at the World Cup.

After Arsenal won the coin toss, they chose to kick things off in the first half. On the referee's whistle, the game started under a thunderous roar. Both teams spent the first few minutes studying each other, but it wasn't long until the first chance came up when United set their feet in the Arsenal half.

In the 6th minute:

The play shifted from the right flank to the left when Antonio made a long cross towards Luke, who then laid the ball off for Alexis lurking outside of the Arsenal penalty area. Every time Alexis touched the ball, the Arsenal fans booed him because he left Arsenal for Manchester during the January 2018 transfer window.

"Niño!" Kakeru shouted as he started his run between Mustafi and Kolašinac.

Picking his moment, Alexis launched a long ball towards the far post. Kakeru, having his timed his run perfectly, found himself all alone against the goalkeeper. However, Kakeru had to take one touch to receive the ball with his left foot before he unleashed a strike that ended up into the side netting.

"Damn!" Kakeru cursed, but then made a thumbs-up sign to Alexis.

Meanwhile on the bench:

"That was a good chance." Nana said.

"That extra touch killed the chance, but it was hard not to take it when the pass had that much pace." Yusuke replied.

"Yeah, I guess you're right, Yusuke."

After that chance, the match became a battle for control in midfield. Neither team was able to have a crack at either goal. However, things started to change when the first 15 minutes were gone. Arsenal were looking to breach the Manchester United defence with their trademark passing game.

The goalkeeper Bernd Leno received the ball from one of his defenders before he passed the ball a long way forward towards Aaron Ramsey. Then the Welshman passed the ball forward to Mesut Özil. The German had 3 players supporting him on the attack.

"This is bad!" Nana exclaimed as she watched the action from the bench

"We need to be clever on defence. Shaw is leaving too much space to their right winger." Yusuke replied.

When Özil entered the final third of the pitch, he passed the ball to former Manchester United player Henrikh Mkhitaryan to the right. The Armenian winger then sliced a fast through pass on the floor towards the far post. Patrick, who escaped Antonio's marking momentarily, was in a good position to the shoot. However, the Cameroonian fanned on the shot, and the ball rolled behind for a goal kick. Everyone associated with Manchester United sighed in relief.

"Phew! That was too close for comfort." Nana said.

"I know. We were lucky that Jenpa missed his shot there because he usually scores those." Yusuke replied.

"We better not stop attacking because of that."

"Surely not, Nana." Yusuke finished.

On the ensuing goal kick taken by David, the ball went quite some distance and just across the halfway line. The ball bounced off Scott's head before it went further forward to Kakeru.

'They play a high defensive line. Let's try this.' Kakeru thought.

Instead of dropping the ball down with the chest, Kakeru surprised everyone by flicking the ball with the outside of his right foot. The ball flew above the Arsenal defenders and into Alexis' run. The Chilean was onside!

"Oh, great ball!" Nana exclaimed.

Alexis ran with the ball until he was one on one with the goalkeeper. As cool as an assassin, Alexis shot the ball past Leno and into the bottom corner of the goal. In an instant, the majority inside the crowd stood up to applaud the 1-0 goal. Inside the crowd were Kakeru and Nana's fellow medical students.

"Great pass by Kakeru! Great goal!" Hikaru shouted.

"That was fantastic!" Chisa added.

"He had to be confident in his teammate to do that. Boy, he sure was." Shunsuke said.

"That's the gap of class between them and most players in the J-League." Daisuke added.

"It looks like he's always hungry for more when he plays. Same for Nana-chan." Hikaru finished.

Meanwhile on the bench:

"Achoo!" Nana sneezed.

"What?" Yusuke asked.

"I guess someone was talking about me."

"Whatever... It looked like the play wouldn't go anywhere, but that was a great play." Yusuke said.

"Yeah. Kakeru was really clever there, and then Alexis was deadly as in his good days." Nana replied.

"Alexis looks like a different player from the few bit I saw of him last season."

"One full summer break will make a world of difference to anybody, especially him." Nana said. "All we need to do now is to keep the pressure on, capitalize again, and put this game away."

"I know. Let's hope we grab another one before halftime." Yusuke replied before he shouted out loud: "LET'S GO, GUYS!"

Arsenal were caught flatfooted on the goal. What's even worse for the Gunners was that momentum remained with the Red Devils for several minutes. The team in red kept on the pressure against their opponents.

In the 26th minute:

An attempted Arsenal attack was foiled by the Manchester United defenders. The ball reached Andreas, who then passed the ball a little forward to Juan. The little Spaniard stood in the center circle when he saw Kakeru standing on the shoulders of the last Arsenal defender. Responding immediately to the opportunity he saw, Juan launched a ball into Kakeru's path.

"Well played, Juan!" Yusuke exclaimed.

"Go, Kakeru!" Nana shouted.

Kakeru ran with the ball all the way to the Arsenal penalty area. Standing his ground, the goalkeeper Leno did not make the first move until Kakeru took the shot. The German goalkeeper got a slight touch of the ball on the shot, but the ball was still bouncing towards the goal… until Shkodran Mustafi retreated back in time to head the ball away, thus conceding the corner kick.

"You gotta be kidding me!" Kakeru shouted out loud.

"Good effort, Knight!" Alexis tried to cheer Kakeru up.

Much to the despair of all Arsenal fans in the stadium, United were not quite done in launching attacks that come really close to goal.

In the 34th minute:

Andreas passed the ball forward to Alexis after the former intercepted it. The Chilean cut inside and ran past the nearest Arsenal player. Then Alexis spotted Kakeru standing in front of the goal, and launched an aerial pass towards him. However, the ball bounced off Kakeru and towards Juan on his right. The Spaniard tried to tap the bouncing ball in with his weaker right foot, but the ball went just out of his reach. In the aftermath, the Arsenal players moved back into defensive positions and cleared the ball away from the danger area. On the bench, no one among the Manchester United substitutes could believe what they wasted of a chance.

"I can't believe that!" Yusuke exclaimed.

"We can't miss that! We just can't." Nana added as she had her hands on her head in disbelief.

"Nana, Yusuke, Matthias, you go warming up." Andrew ordered.

"Yes, Boss!" the three players replied.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"Damn! Kakeru should have scored 2 goals by now." Hikaru said.

"He has been unlucky so far." Chisa replied.

"She's right. The first one was because of an extra touch. The second one here was because the defender came back just in time to save a goal." Daisuke said.

"So far, it's Manchester United who have all the best chances in the match." Shunsuke said.

"But that's dangerous though. All of those missed chances could hurt later." Hikaru replied.

"Yeah. The other team could well come back stronger at any time." Chisa finished.

In the 37th minute, the first sparks of animosity started flying between both teams. On a counterattack from Arsenal, Mesut Özil tried to run his way into the Manchester United half when Ander tackled him down.

PEEP!

The referee gave the free kick to Arsenal. Ander tried to apologize for the foul, but Özil was having none of it. As the German of Turkish descent got up, he tried to take a quick free kick although Ander was still standing in front of the point of infringement. Frustrated, Özil shoved the Ander away, but the Spaniard only moved one step backwards. Something worse came next as Özil slammed the ball into Ander's shin pads.

"Hey, who do you think you are?" Ander shouted at Özil before he shoved the German back.

Almost immediately, players from both teams came up to separate the belligerents. In the midst of the flashpoint, Patrick went head to head with United's Ivorian defender, Eric Bailly.

"Hé! Tu pues. Qu'est-ce que tu as mangé? De la bouse d'éléphant? (Hey! You stink. What did you eat? Elephant poo?)" Patrick taunted.

"Répète donc pour voir! (Say that again!)" an angry Eric retorted as he grabbed Patrick by the collar.

Within the next seconds, the crowd of players moved to separate the new pair of belligerents. Eric had to be held by Chris and Scott to prevent something more reckless from happening. Nevertheless, Patrick and Eric continued exchanging harsh words against the other. On the touchlines, Yusuke and Nana watched the whole scene unfolding.

"Did you see that?" Yusuke asked.

"I sure saw it. He's trying to get one of our defenders sent off." Nana replied.

"GET OUT OF THERE, ERIC!!!" Andrew shouted the orders to his defender.

Once things calmed down a little around a minute later at Saitama Stadium, the referee had a word with each of the belligerents separately. In the context of a friendly match, referees want to keep cards in their pockets as much as possible. Hence no yellow card was shown to anyone. Meanwhile in the stands, no one could believe what just happened.

"What was that?" Chisa asked.

"I don't know. That's not supposed to happen in a friendly match." Hikaru replied.

"I read a few things about Jenpa's character when he played in France. He's a very good striker, but he will try to get under everyone's skin." Daisuke said.

"Not only that, but Özil should have been booked. He's the one who started everything." Shunsuke added.

"Kakeru's team needs to stay cool out there." Hikaru finished.

Since that incident, Arsenal seemed to get fired up. The Gunners started attacking the Manchester United fortress in a more sustained fashion as they approached the halftime whistle. A few shots went wide to the Manchester United goal, but the attempts were getting closer to the target.

In the last seconds of injury time in the first half, Arsenal earned a corner kick. With good kick of the ball from Mesut Özil, the ball swirled towards a "no man's land" area located just in front of the 6-yard box. Patrick made a run inside the box, and used a teammate as a natural shield against 2 Manchester United players. With a free header, Patrick scored the 1-1 equalizer for Arsenal. In the aftermath, the United players were looking at each other for an explanation.

"Damn! Talk about a bad time to concede a goal." Yusuke was disgusted.

"That was something we could have avoided with better man-marking. The Boss will certainly bring Matthias on to add some steel at the back." Nana replied.

As the play restarted, only a few seconds went by until the referee blew his whistle for halftime. It was the signal for the other Manchester United substitutes to start their warm-up exercises with the fitness coach. Meanwhile, those who played and those who were already warming up made their way back to dressing room to receive feedback and instructions ahead of the second half.


In the Manchester United dressing room at halftime:

"That's ****ing unbelievable." Alexis cursed. "Keep playing, guys."

"We let ourselves fall asleep in the last 10 minutes or so, and they came back stronger. We have to be play smart." Kakeru added his opinion about the first half for his teammates to know.

Seconds later, Andrew stepped in to make his halftime speech.

"OK, the plan is simple in the second half: we have to play better with the ball. I want everyone to keep moving your feet. Don't get frustrated with the chances we miss; more will come. Our game is about getting the ball back from them. And when you do, we hit them quick on the counter. Let's go, lads!" Andrew said.

The players responded with a hand of applause before they went back to their halftime habits such as re-hydrating themselves with energy drinks, eating bananas or energy bars to get that extra energy. Meanwhile, Andrew walked his way towards one his 3 substitutes, especially a tall Caucasian man with brown hair, brown eyes, and a distinctive musketeer beard.

"Matthias, you're ready to go?" Andrew asked.

Matthias Köhler, one of the best defenders in the world and a member of the German Nationalmannschaft, said: "What's the plan, Boss?"

"The best thing you can do: you follow Jenpa like a shadow. On their corner kicks, you stick with him. You start the second half." Andrew replied.

"OK, Boss. He's mine."

Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke took a moment to talk about the defender who was about to come on for their team.

"About time he plays with us." Kakeru said.

"Yeah, I agree. Whenever I see him on TV or in person, he always looks like a rock at the back." Yusuke replied.

"Matthias is the kind of leader you always want to have at the back." Nana said. "At 192 cm (6'4") and 90 kg (198 lbs) with the power he has for a player in his prime, he will give anybody a tough time out there."

"Let's get the business done out there." Kakeru finished.

Before the second half started, Manchester United replaced Eric, Juan, and Scott with Matthias, Nana, and Yusuke respectively. On the other hand, Arsenal replaced Bernd Leno with the veteran and former Chelsea goalkeeper, Petr Cech.

Kakeru and Nana stood in the center of the pitch, and waited for the referee to blow the whistle that would start the second half. When the whistle came, Nana kicked things off with a pass towards the central midfielders.

The second half was only 3 minutes old when Arsenal pushed forward through Mkhitaryan rushing down United's left flank. Mkhitaryan skipped past Luke easily, and ran deeper before kicking a dangerous ball towards the face of goal. Matthias headed the ball away, but Özil lurked just outside the box. The German midfielder took advantage of the confusion created by Mkhitaryan and of the fact that David was partially screened to hit the quick volley despite Yusuke's desperate intervention. The ball flew out of David's reach and into the corner of the goal. Suddenly, the Arsenal fans inside Saitama Stadium were the ones jubilating. Meanwhile, Kakeru and Nana were baffled at the sudden turn of events as they looked at the jubilating Arsenal players in disgust.

"But... How?" Kakeru asked.

"It was another bad play at the back. That sucks." Nana replied.

Meanwhile, Matthias tried to rally his teammates, and get them back into the game. "It's only one goal down. Play smart and push forward. MOVE!"

"C'mon, let's go!" Ander shouted as well.

"If we have to beat them in the old-fashioned way, we will do it." Kakeru said to Nana.

"Let's take it back to them."

Arsenal were in front by a score of 2-1. Despite having fallen behind, the Manchester United players got back up, and switched their strategy into an even more aggressive one to match Arsenal's new level of intensity. Over the next 10 minutes, United started taking better control of the ball, and got better chances in the 60th minute.

From deep in the Arsenal half, Mustafi passed the ball towards Elneny. However, Ander rushed on Elneny like a hawk on its prey. Within a split second, the Spaniard dispossessed the Egyptian of the ball before the former passed the ball forward to Kakeru.

"Come on, Kakeru!" Hikaru shouted.

"You can do it!" Chisa also shouted.

Kakeru ran as fast as he could to take the path to goal, but Mustafi and Sokratis retreated in a position to block all direct shooting angles. Instead of pushing further while entering the Arsenal penalty area, Kakeru made a ground pass across, hoping that it would reach a teammate. The ball went off the defender Bellerín on the 12-yard spot, but Nana precipitated her run to fetch the loose ball.

"Shoot it, Nana-chan!" Chisa shouted.

Instead of going straight for a shot, Nana sidestepped her run a little to find a better shooting angle. But when she took the shot, the ball was deflected out of bounds by the defender Bellerín. Nana could only look in disappointment, rueing at the opportunity she had missed.

'Why did I not shoot right on?' Nana thought.

"It's OK, Seven. Let's keep the pressure on." Kakeru cheered Nana up.

Later in the 62nd minute, Arsenal made a few more changes with Stephan Lichtsteiner, Granit Xhaka, Ryuichi Araki, and Alexandre Lacazette replacing Héctor Bellerín, Mohamed Elneny, Mesut Özil, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang respectively. Özil felt some discomfort after a slight contact with Yusuke a little earlier, forcing the Arsenal head coach to take the German off as a preventive measure. Despite the arrival of fresh legs for Arsenal, United continued to create the best attacks.

In the 69th minute:

Alexis started an attack for Manchester United with 4 players in support. The Chilean passed the ball forward to Nana, who then made a feint to shake off an Arsenal defender before she made a short pass to Kakeru on the edge of the penalty area.

"Knight!" Alexis shouted as he made a run inside the penalty area.

"Niño!" Kakeru shouted back.

Kakeru then chipped the ball towards the face of goal, which allowed Alexis to redirect the ball on goal with his head. However, the goalkeeper Petr Cech deflected the ball out of bounds with a reflex save in extremis. Nevertheless, United earned a corner kick.

"Mierda (Shit)." Alexis uttered his disbelief.

On the following corner kick, Nana moved in to shoot the ball. Having seen Petr Cech standing some distance off his line, the Little Witch tried something audacious by shooting a fast curved ball that appeared to curl towards the top corner at the far post. Cech was caught off guard, but the ball grazed the top of the crossbar before it went out of bounds for a goal kick.

"Damn! I thought I had it." Nana cursed.

"Good try, Seven! Good try!" Kakeru cheered Nana up.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"That's a couple of chances gone begging again." Hikaru said.

"Yeah. That's the story of the match for Manchester United. It's not a lack of effort, but it just doesn't want to go in." Chisa replied.

"It looks like we'll have even more changes coming up on both sides." Shunsuke said.

In the following stoppage of play, Arsenal proceeded with one more substitution by replacing Henrikh Mkhitaryan with youngster Ainsley Maitland-Niles. The North Londoners maintained the same formation although the forwards were also ordered to be defensively aware at all times. In the following dozen minutes, Manchester United continued pushing forward. But Arsenal kept regrouping as a strong defensive block ready to launch swift counterattacks. Arsenal had a few more chances to extend the gap, but the Gunners were held away by United's defensive brigade. It appeared that both sides would cancel each other, and it was perfect for Arsenal being in the lead.


Later in the 83rd minute:

From just within the Arsenal half, Aaron Ramsey launched a long pass towards the left wing and inside the Manchester United half. The ball reached Sead Kolašinac, who then flicked it ahead for Patrick. The Cameroonian was running with the ball towards the Manchester United penalty area.

"You're going nowhere, pal!" Matthias said.

'Allons voir ça (Let's see about that).' Patrick thought.

Instead of attempting to cut inside, Patrick made a cheeky backheel pass back to Kolašinac. The Bosnian left-back outpaced Antonio to find into a 1v1 situation with David de Gea inside the penalty area. David rushed towards Kolašinac, but the Bosnian chose to make a backward pass at the very split second when David came just inches from him. Surprised by the sudden presence of the ball, Yusuke saw the ball go off his shin pads and towards the lateral edge of the penalty area. Yusuke was forced to run after the ball since Patrick was the Arsenal player nearest to it.

'C'est à moi (This is mine).' Patrick thought.

Patrick retrieved the ball. With a slight contact with the ball, Patrick dashed towards the goal line before he jumped onto the ground to get the referee's attention after Yusuke apparently stuck his leg in. However, the referee saw it all: Yusuke's leg was away from Patrick's by more than an inch. It was a free kick for Manchester United and a yellow card against Patrick.

"What? Me diving? You're kidding me!" Patrick complained to the referee.

Although the referee immediately showed the yellow card against Patrick, Yusuke stepped forward to give him a piece of his mind as the Japanese was disgusted by the dive. In fact, Yusuke always stood firm against any form of diving and simulation since his time at Kamakura High School.

"Kusoyarou (piece of shit)!" Yusuke chirped at Patrick.

"What do you know, you high school loser?" Patrick asked in Japanese.

"I hate divers wiping the floor." Yusuke added as he and Patrick were less than an inch away from each other in a head-to-head confrontation.

"You better not screw with me. It will be painful."

"I'm here all day if you want!" Yusuke replied.

"OK, Yusuke, just chill out. Jenpa, get lost." Kakeru said as he and Matthias quickly got in the middle to hold Yusuke back while 2 Arsenal players did the same with Patrick.

Immediately, the rest of the players came up to separate the belligerents while a few Arsenal players complained in vain about the referee's decision of not giving a penalty. Kakeru and Nana pulled their friend Yusuke away, but no one knew that the temperature was about to rise with another incident that would stir up emotions on all sides.

In the 86th minute:

Patrick was close to retrieving a loose ball, but Yusuke tackled the ball away with the right foot. In the process, Patrick fell onto the ground in the follow-through of Yusuke's strong challenge. Despite Patrick's complaints, the referee deemed the tackle as legal, and the game continued. At some distance away inside the Arsenal half, Nana was facing Araki.

"You're not getting past me this time, Nana-chan." Araki said.

After making of couple of feints to see the range of Araki's body position, Nana executed her "Alley" dribbling technique as Granit made the first move towards her. With that technique, Nana tapped the ball with her right foot so the ball would go to the player's left while Nana runs past the player on the right. It almost had a similar effect as Kakeru's Phi Trick.

The ball rolling a little further, Nana ran in full stride to catch up with it. Meanwhile, Granit Xhaka went towards Nana in full speed with the intention of tackling her. Nana slightly touched the ball to push it past Xhaka's reach. However, the Swiss still jumped in with a two-footed flying tackle off the ground by 2 inches, and then caught Nana's left boot, sending the Japanese woman hard on the deck.

The reaction from Manchester United fans and players alike was immediate as a major shout was heard throughout the stadium. Almost immediately, the referee blew his whistle. Meanwhile, Nana was still holding her left foot in discomfort.

Meanwhile in the stands

"HEY!!! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!" Hikaru shouted.

"That's a two-footed flying tackle!" Shunsuke added.

"He has to go. Send him off!" Chisa added.

"There's no way he can stay after that." Daisuke remarked.

"That was worse than cynical." Shunsuke finished.

Xhaka tried to claim his innocence with all eyes on him. But it wasn't very long before a mob of angry Manchester United players met him, and started shoving him.

"Hey, sod off!" Patrick shoved a couple of players back. However, Matthias went after the Cameroonian.

"Hush it, bastard!" Matthias angrily shouted.

"What are you gonna do?" Patrick retorted.

"Next time you come near me, I'll kill you."

Before things went too far with the United players who were annoyed by Patrick, the referee ordered everyone to disperse. Then the referee asked only Xhaka to come over to him. The Swiss was definitely in trouble as a big chunk of the crowd asked for the right punishment to be dished out.

"I came as fast as I could to get the ball. I didn't do it on purpose." Xhaka pleaded to the referee.

"You flew in with both feet in the air. There's no way you can escape that. You're off." the referee replied.

The referee pulled the red card and showed it to Xhaka; Arsenal were taken down to 10 men. Despite being sent off, the Swiss continued to argue with the referee before he was bailed out by Arsenal players and personnel. Meanwhile, Kakeru and Yusuke were attending to Nana for good measure after the rough tackle she took.

"You sure you can carry on?" Kakeru asked Nana.

"I'm fine. That scumbag will pay for that."

"Yeah, but we better find a way soon. We only have a few minutes left to score a goal." Yusuke said.

"Let's not waste any more time then." Kakeru finished.

With Arsenal down to 10 men, Manchester United pushed all of their resources forward to put pressure with hopes of finding the elusive equalizing goal. The Gunners pulled as many men back as possible, but that tactical decision was an invitation for more attacks from the Red Devils.

In the 89th minute:

Moving the ball inside the Arsenal half of the field, Ander passed the ball towards the right flank to Antonio. The Manchester United right-back arrived on the side of the Arsenal penalty area when he received the ball, of which he immediately kicked a loss cross inside the penalty area. With the Arsenal defenders left stranded, Nana arrived right on cue to shoot the ball immediately from 12 yards to goal. However, the big goalkeeper Petr Cech stretched his hand out to stop the shot before the ball could reach the bottom corner to his right. The rebound was retrieved by Nana a little further away and still inside the penalty area, but she had no space to shoot at all. The Little Witch then passed the ball to Luke, who took a shot that went a little above the crossbar.

"Damn! I had it!" Nana cursed.

"Let's keep pushing! Let's keep pushing!" Kakeru shouted the rally cry.

The pressure was piling on the Arsenal players, who were desperately trying to see through the final whistle. Meanwhile, United were pushing hard as time entered stoppage time. Although the result of the match should not matter on any standings board, the competitive spirit came back to the surface on both sides.

In the last minute of injury time:

Following a shot from Luke against the goalkeeper Cech, Manchester United earned a corner kick. The majority in the crowd roared, hoping to see at least one more goal from Manchester United.

"Come on! You can do this!" Hikaru shouted.

"Throw everything in there!" Chisa added.

Nana ran with the ball towards the corner flag before she made a short kick towards Yusuke. The former Kamakura High School midfielder was facing an Arsenal defender, and waited for the perfect moment.

"Now!" Nana shouted.

"Go!" Yusuke replied.

Yusuke waited for the very moment when Nana was in line with the last Arsenal defender before he made the through pass. Nana then quickly ran to reach the ball just inside the penalty area. Taking advantage of the panic among the Arsenal defenders, Nana made a quick squared pass towards the front of the Arsenal goal.

"No, you..." Araki said at the split second when the ball flew past him.

From point blank, Kakeru tapped the ball past the helpless Arsenal goalkeeper, and sent Saitama Stadium wild. It was suddenly 2-2 with only seconds to go!

"YATTA! (I DID IT!)" Kakeru

"Well done, Kakeru!" Nana went hugging Kakeru first.

"Thanks for the pass. That was the key on that goal." Kakeru said.

"You did it, Kakeru! Attaboy!" Matthias congratulated Kakeru.

While the Manchester United players on the pitch celebrated the late equalizer, it was equal jubilation on the bench and for most spectators in the stands. On the other hand, the Arsenal players had their heads down in total disbelief.

"Yeah! Well done, Kakeru!" Hikaru cheered.

"It's amazing! They did when it was almost over." Chisa said.

"We are definitely going to a penalty shootout now." Shunsuke remarked.

"From there, it's about nerves of steel." Daisuke replied.

Although Arsenal kicked the ball, the final whistle was blown to signal the end of normal time. The crowd cheered at both teams in appreciation of a great match.

PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEP!!!

According to the rules of the International Champions Cup, matches that are tied after 90 minutes would be solved by a penalty shootout. Still buzzing after the goal he scored just moments ago, Kakeru's teammates gave him high fives. It was thanks to him that his team was still having a chance to win. Kakeru congratulated Nana with a good hug as well.

"So here we are now." Kakeru said.

"Yeah, all thanks to you."

"Nervous about the shootout, Seven?"

"I must admit that I'm a little nervous, Kakeru."

"Just think of where you want to shoot, but don't ever change your mind at the last minute. Don't look at the keeper. If you're not sure, smash it in the middle." Kakeru said.

"I'll remember that." Nana finished.

Both teams then took a few minutes to rest a little, have a few drinks, work up a few muscles with the physios, and have a talk with the coaches about what habits the opposition's goalkeeper had. After the short intermission, the referee proceeded with a coin toss to determine which team would shoot first. Finally, Arsenal won the toss, and chose to shoot first.

Despite the fact that the match was only regarded as a friendly, the pressure of taking a penalty kick is always huge as all eyes are on the kicker from the moment he or she has to make the long walk from the center line to the penalty spot. On one side, the supporters of the player's team would cheer while the opposition's supporters would boo or whistle at the player. The hardest thing for any taker is to stay in control of oneself, and to believe in what he or she has been trained for.

At last, the first penalty taker for Arsenal stepped up to the spot... Patrick Jenpa. It wasn't long until boos rained down on him.

Patrick put the ball on the spot with the valve up, and then stepped back a long way out, just outside the 18-yard box. Once the referee blew his whistle, Patrick dashed towards the ball, and blasted it towards the top corner at the goalkeeper's right. United's goalkeeper David de Gea jumped in the right direction, but the power behind the shot made it unstoppable (Manchester United 0-1 Arsenal).

As Patrick Jenpa walked back, Kakeru stepped up as United's first taker.

"Just believe in what you trained to do, and let nothing else go through your head, Kakeru!" Nana gave her words of encouragement. In response to those words, Kakeru started blanking his mind ahead of the kick.

Given the go, Kakeru had his gaze aimed at Petr Cech's right when he made the run. However, that tactic fooled the Arsenal goalkeeper as Kakeru shot the ball into the bottom corner at the goalkeeper's left side while the latter was diving on his right (Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal).

"Yeah! Good shot, Kakeru!" the medical students shouted.

Running away with his arm raised to salute the crowd in celebration, Kakeru walked back towards his delighted teammates. Meanwhile, Alexandre Lacazette came up in the opposite direction. The French striker moved in to put the ball on the spot. Following the referee's whistle, Lacazette struck the ball towards the goalkeeper's right, but the shot lacked a little velocity. Having anticipated the right direction, David de Gea managed to catch the ball on the ground.

"Oh! Great save, Big Dave!" Kakeru exclaimed.

"Way to go!" Nana added.

"We have an advantage!" Yusuke said.

While David de Gea celebrated his save with the Manchester United supporters behind the goal, Lacazette walked back in disappointment. The next man to volunteer for Manchester United was their defensive leader.

"I'll go for it." Matthias said.

"Go and get him." Kakeru replied.

Matthias made the long wall until he arrived to the penalty spot and put the ball on it. Stepping back a few yards behind the ball, Matthias ran and arrowed the shot into the bottom low corner on Petr Cech's right as the latter plunged towards his left (Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal).

"YEAH!" Nana shouted.

"Well done, Matthias!" Kakeru exclaimed.

"Great shot!" Yusuke added.

As Matthias walked back with the satisfaction of having done his job, Araki walked his ay forward as Arsenal's third taker. Kakeru knew fully well what Araki was capable of when it comes to take a penalty kick.

"If Dave jumps first, Araki will score." Kakeru said.

"Yeah, it's all up to Dave not flinching now." Nana replied.

Araki moved into a left-footed position for the kick. When the referee ordered to proceed, Araki made a run that appeared to be an upcoming strike to the goalkeeper's left. Anticipating the shot in that direction, David already started his jump.

'He took the bait.' Araki thought.

That small split second when David started his jump was all that Araki needed to change his intended shooting trajectory. Just as he did in the past, Araki slightly turned his left ankle from the inside to the outside, and grazed the ball with the outside of his left foot at the last moment. The shot was a weak ball, but the goalkeeper was caught out of position while the ball went in (Manchester United 2-2 Arsenal).

"I knew it." Kakeru said, dejected.

"Dave went a split second too fast, and that was enough for Araki to make the switch." Nana replied.

"I wonder who's coming next for us." Yusuke said.

As United looked to send the third shooter, everyone expected Alexis would go and take it. However, Brazilian youngster Andreas Pereira, who played a solid game in midfield so far, unexpectedly volunteered to take the third kick.

"Andreas looks quite confident." Kakeru said.

"He really is. For someone a little younger than us, he has quite the strong nerve." Yusuke replied.

"He is one of our best penalty takers in training. Let's hope he does the same trick here." Nana said.

On the referee's signal, Andreas appeared to start a quick run. But after one yard, he made a stuttered run on a couple of yards before he moved into full speed again. Then Andreas slotted the ball to the goalkeeper's right while the latter jumped to his left. Manchester United still led against Arsenal after 3 takers on each side (Manchester United 3-2 Arsenal).

"Good one, Andreas!" Kakeru applauded his younger teammate.

"You did well there." Nana added.

"Thanks, guys." Andreas replied.

Arsenal then sent their 4th penalty taker, Aaron Ramsey. Since Arsenal's previous 3 attempts went towards the right side of the Manchester United goalkeeper, Ramsey chose to hit a low shot towards David de Gea's left in the bottom corner. However, United's Spanish goalkeeper also anticipated the manoeuver, and dived towards his left. With just enough contact on the fingertips, David de Gea deflected the ball out of bounds.

"He saved it!" Hikaru exclaimed.

"Match point to Kakeru's team now!" Chisa said.

"Yep! If Manchester United score now, 4-2 and it's all over." Daisuke replied.

The United fans in the stadium cheered loudly in relief as their team only needed a goal to win the match with 2 attempts at the most. While everyone was guessing who the next Manchester United kicker would be, the players in red already knew who it would be. When the next player stepped forward, the majority of the audience was astonished.

"Are they really serious?" Hikaru asked.

"Now that is unexpected." Shunsuke said.

"COME ON, NANA-CHAN!" Chisa shouted.

Knowing the importance of the next kick, the Arsenal fans inside the stadium intensified the booing and the whistling in their attempt to take Nana's concentration away. Even Petr Cech attempted to get into Nana's head with a few words.

"Hey, Mishima! You sure have guts, but that's as far as you go. I can read you like a book." Cech said.

However, the young Japanese woman never let anything go through her mind nor did she even look at the goalkeeper. She only stood outside of the box until the referee ordered the Arsenal goalkeeper to move back on his goal line.

Once Nana stepped inside the box, the only things she had in mind were to put the ball in the correct position, and then focus on the target. She already made her mind about where to aim at the goal.

'Keep your cool, Seven.' Kakeru thought as if he was trying to convey his advice through telepathy.

PEEP!

Nana made her run, and struck the ball hard. Cech guessed the right side as he went diving on his right, but the shot flew with speed into the top corner. In an instant, Nana sent the Manchester United supporters in Saitama into pandemonium (Manchester United 4-2 Arsenal).

"SHE WON IT!!!" Hikaru exclaimed.

"Congratulations, Nana! You did it!" Chisa added.

Immediately after the 4-2 goal that settled the shootout, Nana celebrated the victory by doing a little dance that came straight out of the Fortnite video game – the Star Power dance. Within seconds, Nana got lifted off the ground by David de Gea before she got mugged by her other teammates. Kakeru gave Nana a quick congratulatory kiss before he and other teammates joined her in the little dance she initiated. After a few short celebrations, Kakeru and Nana walked their way to shake hands with the Arsenal players. Kakeru met Patrick first.

"Good game, Aizawa." Patrick said.

"Thanks, Jenpa. You did well." Kakeru replied.

"You won today, but we will be ready for the first official encounter in the Premier League."

"I expect nothing less." Kakeru said.

Then Kakeru walked towards Araki. They were joined by Nana.

"Well, you two won again." Araki shook hands with Nana first and then with Kakeru.

"It could have gone either way." Nana replied.

"You know how penalties are." Kakeru added.

"I only know it too well." Araki said.

"We all sympathize." Kakeru replied.

"Well, I wish you guys the best of lucks back in England. However, I hope you will circle September 2 on your calendar. That's going to be our first official match against each other. We will have a much stronger team by then."

"I look forward to it, Araki. We will have our strongest team out there too. See you then." Kakeru finished.

After bidding good luck to each other, the friends parted ways. Kakeru and Nana remained a little longer on the pitch to salute their friends in the stands before leaving to the dressing room. For Kakeru, Nana, Yusuke, and Araki, the time was coming to start a new season with their respective clubs. However, none of them knew that some of the unpleasant moments during the match sowed the first seeds that would soon revive an old rivalry.


Sunday July 29

Narita International Airport, Chiba, Japan

10:20 AM

Early in the following morning, the Manchester United team was ready to take the long flight from Tokyo to Manchester. The 16-hour flight was set to take off at 10:50 AM with a first-class trip on board of a Japan Airlines Boeing 777 from Narita to Heathrow Airport, London. Then a British Airways flight from London to Manchester would take the team home in the early evening just before 7:00 PM BST. For one of the Manchester United players, it was a special day as he was about to leave his homeland to earn his own living as a professional footballer for a very big club in a foreign country.

"Having a few butterflies?" Kakeru asked.

"I'm excited... in a good way. I've been training my whole life for this, Kakeru." Yusuke replied.

"It was the same feeling for us back a few years ago." Nana said.

"Don't worry too much about it. After all, you'll be in good company as our new neighbor in West Didsbury, Manchester." Kakeru added.

"You told me that there's a vacant apartment right below yours. Right, Kakeru?" Yusuke asked.

"Yep. The previous landlord wanted to sell the whole duplex last week, but we convinced him to keep the sale on hold until you arrive. We had some help in Manchester though. Anyway, after we arrive, and then settle things down with the sale, the apartment at ground level will be yours. Meanwhile, we won't have to to move anywhere for now; both apartments in the duplex are the same size."

"I see. Is it just the two of you in your current apartment?" Yusuke asked.

"No, there's also Noriko." Nana replied.

"A woman? Who is this Noriko?" Yusuke was surprised when he heard that a woman was also living with Kakeru and Nana under the same roof.

"You'll see her when we'll arrive." Nana replied. "She's really nice, but we won't spoil the surprise for you now."

"All right! It's time to get on board. Let's go, people!" Andrew ordered his players to embark.

Finally, the Japanese portion of Manchester United's pre-season tour officially ended. The first chapter of the new campaign was about to be written in exactly 13 days. However, it was first and foremost the time for most of the players to fly back to the city they call "home" for at least 10 months every year.

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