A New Season
After the Community Shield match, the following 5 days went down very quickly as the Manchester United players returned into a routine training schedule ahead of the Premier League season opener. By around 3:20 PM, Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke already left their respective apartments in the previous evening to join their teammates at the hotel. Still following her old habits and rituals, Noriko prepared herself for the match. Just before she left the apartment, she received a call on her smartphone. Noriko saw that the call came from her mother, Sayuri.
"Hello, Noriko. How are you doing?" Sayuri asked at the other end of the conversation.
"I'm all good. I was about to leave the apartment just now."
"Good, good. Robert just got our tickets at the box office."
"Where will I find all of you?" Noriko asked.
"Your father and I will stand by one of the statues in front of the East Stand. Robert's father is also coming with us." Sayuri replied.
"Grandpa Harry will be there? That's great!"
"I knew you'd be happy to hear the news, Noriko. I enjoy the way he speaks too. By the way, you have seen this new Japanese player, Yusuke Saeki, since he arrived alongside your friends Kakeru and Nana when you picked them up at the airport. What kind of person is he?"
"Sorry, Mom, I couldn't catch the last part. Anyway, I still need to drive, and find a good parking spot first." Noriko partially lied.
"OK, I will let you go now. See you there."
"See you in front of the stadium, Mom." Noriko said before she ended the phone conversation. Then Noriko left the apartment, and drove her way towards Old Trafford, where United's first home match was set to be played on this very first day of the new Premier League campaign.
The Premier League, sometimes referred as the Premiership based on the name used between 1993 and 2007, is the top English professional league in men’s association football. Contested by 20 clubs, it operates on a system of promotion and relegation with the Football League, which is also known as England's second division. From August to May, all 20 clubs play 38 games each for a grand total of 380 matches with each team playing each opponent twice – home and away – every season. Teams are ranked by total points, then goal difference, and then goals scored.
At the end of every season, the top 3 teams are automatically qualified into the group stages of the UEFA Champions League while the team that finishes in 4th position has to win a two-legged knockout tie in order to enter the group stage.
Having won the competition on the penultimate day of the previous season, Manchester United were still the official favorites although several pundits agreed that the likes of Chelsea, and Manchester City could act as serious contenders at the top of the table. It also meant that United needed to start the season with several good results in quick succession.
Saturday August 12
Manchester United vs. Bright & Hove Albion F.C. (Premier League match 1)
Old Trafford, Manchester, UK
On this season opening day, United's match against the team from East Sussex was set to kick off at 5:30 PM BST. Just over one hour before kickoff time, Noriko arrived in front of the East Stand, outside of Old Trafford. Her parents as well as her paternal grandfather, Harry Lewis, were already waiting by Sir Matt Busby's statue.
"Ah, there you are, Noriko." Robert said.
"Dad, Mom, Grandpa! I'm glad to see you." Noriko said.
"Nice to see you too, my granddaughter. We were certainly not going to miss the season opener, Noriko. Especially at my age, I want to enjoy every moment." Harry replied with a very enthusiastic tone as he embraced Noriko.
Noriko's paternal grandfather was a 74-year-old man with a 5'9" height, a robust frame, and a relatively long beard. Nevertheless, Harry was known in Manchester for his rowdy personality, and his booming and operatic voice that led him to a long career as a radio host. People compared him to boisterous actor Brian Blessed in more ways than one.
"Before last season, I was afraid that we may not see United win titles for a while. We are glad that your friends succeeded in making a big part of that renaissance a reality last season." Robert said in English so Harry could understand the whole conversation.
"I always knew they have it in them. I'm sure they can do it again this season, and even more. This new player, Yusuke Saeki, will eventually help the team greatly too." Noriko replied.
"That would be absolutely marvelous if they can go all the way in Europe." Harry said.
"I'm sure they will be working on it, Grandpa. But right now, I hope we have a sound start in the League for once."
"Of course, the League is always a priority. Still, one thing I'm sure of is that the lads will entertain the crowds with eye-popping moments. With that young Aizawa lad and his lovely lass, Mishima, on board, they will keep on fighting to follow their dreams." Harry said.
"Before we go inside the stadium, I just want to speak with Noriko for a couple of minutes... just women's stuff." Sayuri said.
"Yes, of course, Sayuri." Robert replied.
Sayuri and Noriko moved a little further. Noriko's Japanese mother had something she wanted to ask her daughter earlier. "Before you left your apartment, I had a question in mind. You still haven't given me an answer." Sayuri said.
"What is it, Mom?"
"I have read a number of things, and watched several videos about that new player, Yusuke Saeki. He appears to be a genuinely good guy in his interviews despite his intensity during matches. I'm sure you met him when you picked up Kakeru and Nana at the airport. What is he like in person?"
"Well... He's quite calm and easygoing. Most important, he appears to be very humble, and yet very intelligent. He always has that kind smile on his face and..."
“Carry on.” Sayuri said.
"For some reason, he reminds me of... 'him'. I really can't explain why."
"Oh, I see." Sayuri replied. "Does he have a girlfriend?"
"Not from what I know." Noriko said.
"Have you thought of giving him a chance?" Sayuri asked.
"N-n-no! Why are you asking me that, Mom? I'm not that interested in him."
"Noriko, you are my only child, and I only want you to be happy no matter what. Don't you think it is about time you let it go, and live your life fully? I can see that you are not indifferent to him unlike with other boys over the years."
"I already have plenty on my plate with my medical studies, Mom. I can't afford myself this kind of thing; I just can't. And besides, I don't feel like I'm ready for that at all."
"Please say no more about it. I just want to enjoy myself today." Noriko finished before she walked her way to the stadium.
'I know you can overcome that final obstacle, Noriko. You have to find a way to enjoy that great thing life can offer. It's the only way you can make peace with yourself at last.' Sayuri thought.
5:14 PM BST
Inside the Manchester United dressing room, the players making the starting XI were eagerly waiting for the match to begin. Some of the starters received a few final individual instructions from the coaches. José chose David (goalkeeper), Antonio (right-back and captain for the day), Eric (centre-back), Matthias (centre-back), Daley (left-back), Nemanja (central midfielder), Pog (central midfielder), Nana (central midfielder), Henrikh (right winger), Kakeru (left winger), and Romelu (striker) for this season-opening match. For Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matić, it was his first start of the new campaign. Yusuke was not among the starters, but he was among the 7 substitutes on the home side’s team sheet.
"Feeling excited?" Kakeru asked Nana.
"Yep! It's the first time my name comes up in the starting XI of a season opener."
"I'm sure your second half performance during the Community Shield played a part." Yusuke said.
"Maybe, but I think the Boss emphasizes on merit during the training sessions." Nana replied.
"“I would have done anything to begin today's match." Yusuke said.
"Don't worry; the Boss knows what he's doing. I'm sure he doesn't want you to waste your energy too early in the season. You have to remember that we play from August to May, not from March to December." Kakeru replied.
"Yeah, you're right. I almost forgot about that."
When José arrived in the room to make his final pre-game speech, everyone turned silent, and looked carefully at the manager during his speech. "Brighton... We spent the whole week working on the pitch, so you know what to do. We watched all DVDs. Keep your shape as a team, don't leave them too much space, and make sure they have no time to react. High-tempo football at all times. OK?"
"YES, BOSS!" the players responded.
"It's the first game of the season... It's not only important that we get a result, but it's also important that we show to all that no one will push us around, people." José gave one last bit of pep talk. "Let's get them."
"YEAAHHH!!" all players cheered out loud to pump themselves up.
"LET'S GO!!!" Matthias shouted.
In the midst of shouts and roars, the Manchester United players left their own dressing room towards the tunnel. A few minutes later, at around 5:25 PM, both teams came out of the tunnel under the loud cheers from the Old Trafford crowd. Holding to their seats on the South Stand's front row, only a few yards away from the players' tunnel, Noriko and her family applauded their team.
"Nana is starting the match. I’m so happy she made it into the season's first starting XI." Noriko said.
"She has really come strong indeed, and yet she's not at her peak age yet. It says a lot on how much potential she has." Robert said.
"She and Kakeru are really unique, Dad. I look forward to see them accomplish great things this season."
"It looks like the new guy Saeki will have to be patient, Bobby. I was expecting him to start since he looked solid against Arsenal." Harry said to Robert.
"They probably want to ease his way into the team, Grandpa. At the same time, we have the newcomer Matić who has decent experience in a Mourinho system; he should take most of the workload. After all, the Japanese league has a different schedule from the Prem, and he needs to build that chemistry with his new teammates." Noriko replied.
"I think he will be just fine with his old friends to support him along the way, Dad." Robert added.
'It's the same for most new signings from a different league. I wouldn't worry too much if I were him.' Noriko thought.
While the official intro music of the Premier League was resonating in all speakers inside Old Trafford, players from both teams shook hands. After the mandatory pre-match team photo, both teams moved into position for kickoff.
Your commentator for this match is Daniel Mann.
Daniel Mann: It's a new season for Manchester United. They may have won the Premier League last season, but they know they cannot let the grass grow with the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, and Liverpool. Arsenal are also not to be taken lightly at all. United need to grab the early hold on their main rivals.
Brighton kicked off the match. Manchester United were attacking towards the East Stand as they often do in the first half of home matches. For the first 9 minutes, it was a game of chess as both teams were studying each other. All of that changed in the 10th minute as Nemanja intercepted the ball, and passed it forward towards Nana.
"We will crush you!" one of the Brighton midfielders said.
Taking on 2 tall Brighton midfielders, Nana succeeded in skipping past them by using a couple of techniques, including a scissors feint and an elastico, to get rid of her opponents in high speed. Now looking for passing options inside Brighton's half, she spotted Kakeru, and immediately passed towards his intended course. However, the defender who marked Kakeru tripped the latter just outside the box.
Daniel Mann: Aizawa's brought down!
Instinctively, the Manchester United players asked for a red card to be dished at the Brighton defender under the suspicion of being the last man preventing a clear goal-scoring opportunity. After a short discussion with the linesman, the referee showed only a yellow card to the culprit.
"How's that only a yellow?" Kakeru asked.
"Why is it not a red card? He denied a scoring chance with a last ditch effort." Matthias also asked.
"He was not the last man. His partner played Aizawa onside before the foul, so yellow is the right call. My assistant had the perfect view on that."
Although slightly disappointed with the call, the Manchester United players moved into position for the direct 20-yard free kick. While a number of players moved into position for creating gaps or to get to possible rebounds, United had 3 players were discussing about the strategy.
Daniel Mann: It's a free kick for Manchester United. With specialists like Pogba, Lukaku, and Mishima, there are plenty of players who can be a threat in this situation.
Nana, Pog, and Romelu gathered for a few seconds, but finally moved into their respective positions a short distance from the ball. After the referee used his vanishing spray to indicate the wall's position, and then moved away, the whistle was blown.
Pog made the first run from the left, but ran over the ball with a first dummy. Then Romelu followed in from the opposite position as it appeared he would hit a left-footed strike. A few Brighton players in the wall jumped to block a shot, but they were also fooled as the Belgian also ran over the ball.
Daniel Mann: Lukaku runs over it as well...
Finally, it was Nana who struck the ball; she was the key player in that free kick strategy. Taking advantage of the descending Brighton players following their earlier jump, Nana's shot flew above those players, and curled strongly towards the left top corner. The Brighton goalkeeper attempted to stop the shot, but it was too late.
Daniel Mann: And what a shot by Mishima! That was unstoppable! Just 10 minutes in the season, Mishima scores United's first Premier League goal of the campaign.
In the midst of the first explosion of joy of the season at Old Trafford, Nana was quickly mobbed by her teammates in celebration while the crowd responded with loud cheers for the young woman who became a fan favorite over the last few years.
"Seven, that shot was top class!" Kakeru said while he gave Nana a hug.
"We would all believe it was David Beckham in person with that shot, Witch." Pog also said as the players moved back towards the center of the field.
"Please, don't tease me that much, guys. I'm nowhere near Beckham." Nana replied. "Still, it feels good to open the score."
The match continued with United still in control of the ball. Nana's free kick goal was a massive confidence booster for the home side as they kept attacking the East Sussex team. In the 21st minute, United broke through once again as it all started with Matthias recovering the ball in the aftermath of a failed corner kick by Brighton.
Daniel Mann: Köhler recovers... forward to Mkhitaryan.
Known for his amazing runs and excellent dribbling skills, Henrikh quickly ran through the middle third of the pitch. On that run, Henrikh wasn't alone as Romelu was already almost on the same level with the last defender ahead, and Kakeru was running down the left flank as well. The Armenian passed the ball towards Kakeru as the latter was on the edge of the penalty area.
Using a few body feints, Kakeru slightly moved towards the inside, and waited for the moment the Brighton defenders would only have their eyes on Romelu. When that split second came, Kakeru hit a very accurate pass towards Henrikh, who then found himself one-one-one with the Brighton goalkeeper.
Daniel Mann: Aizawa, great pass back to Mkhitaryan... Plenty of space!
The Armenian winger immediately unleashed a hard shot that left no chance to the poor goalkeeper. Suddenly, the crowd erupted as United doubled their lead.
Daniel Mann: Beautifully crafted play, wonderful finish... Manchester United are up by a pair. They mean business! Even if he doesn't score, the young Japanese forward can still create mayhem inside the box.
"Well done, Micki!" Kakeru exclaimed as he ran after the jubilating Armenian.
"Great pass too, Knight!" Henrikh replied after he turned towards Kakeru to acknowledge the quality of the decisive pass. Then both players were mobbed by their teammates in celebration..
"That was mint, you two!" Nana said as she wrapped her arms around both Kakeru and Henrikh.
Meanwhile, Noriko and her relatives were enjoying the show from their seats.
"That was amazing as always by Kakeru." Robert said.
"It was great instinct by him indeed, Bobby. Brighton just can't cope with the lad." Harry replied.
"Knowing him, he will try to wrap his day of work with at least a goal." Noriko said.
For the rest of the first half, United exerted intelligent control by passing the ball around, and by holding the Brighton players far from goal with high-tempo pressure. However, it didn't mean the end of United's attacking approach. Brighton realized that in the 42nd minute as United saw the gap in the opposition's defensive setup again.
Daniel Mann: Mishima... finds Mkhitaryan on the right.
Nana led the swift attack, and then passed to Henrikh down the right flank. Spotting Kakeru running between 2 Brighton defenders, the Armenian winger crossed an aerial pass towards Kakeru, who then redirected the ball towards the goal.
Daniel Mann: Delicious ball! And Aizawa couldn't bury it past the post.
Kakeru's header shot flew past the goalkeeper, but then hit the outside of the post and away. Everyone inside Old Trafford was convinced Kakeru scored the 3rd goal for his team before they saw the ball fly out for a goal kick. Kakeru looked at the Brighton net in disbelief as well.
"Damn it!" Kakeru cursed.
"It's alright, Kakeru. You will get that goal." Nana shouted before she turned to congratulate Henrikh for the previous pass to Kakeru. "Nice pass, Micki!"
The final minutes of the first half winded down. The score at halftime was 2-0 for Manchester United, but everyone knew the gap between both teams could have been greater.
In the Manchester United dressing room:
"That was a very good first half, guys. If you carry on with the same commitment, everything will be fine. Keep the pressure on them, and don't let them breathe." José instructed his players.
After the players responded with a small applause to the manager's speech, the players talked among each other about the way to proceed.
"I noticed that their central defenders are very focused on covering Rom even though they already allowed several chances from wide. We better keep exploiting the gaps on the flanks." Nana said.
"I saw the same thing too." Pog said.
"I will keep going into that gap. Just pass the ball in my direction, and I will finish them off." Kakeru said.
"I know you can, Kakeru. Go out there, and kick their arses." Matthias replied.
The second half started with Kakeru and Nana kicking off the ball. Shortly after the restart, the Brighton players charged forward in the attack. However, United intercepted the ball, and launched a quick counterattack.
Daniel Mann: It's Mishima organizing a counterattack... now Lukaku...
Without any hesitation, Romelu passed the ball back to Nana, who then sent the through pass towards Kakeru. The Japanese forward ran into a gap to find himself alone with the Brighton goalkeeper. In that situation, Kakeru sliced the shot to the goalkeeper's right and into the back of the net.
Daniel Mann: Oh, AIZAWAAAA!!! He scores in front of the Stretford End. Mishima the provider, Aizawa the finisher, Manchester United are already home and dry in the 47th minute. 3-0!
"YOSHA!" Kakeru shouted with a mixed feeling of joy and relief.
"Great goal, Kakeru!" Nana said as she jumped over Kakeru's shoulders in celebration before both were joined by the other United players.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"That's how to do it. Great one, guys!" Noriko shouted as watched the celebrations in front of the Brighton goal, only a few dozen yards in front of her seat.
"They are on the same wavelength." Harry said.
"These two always know where to find one another. It won't change anytime soon, and that's great for us." Sayuri added.
The game continued for a while with United firmly in the lead. Brighton had a few chances as some of their shots were on target, but David succeeded in making the saves. In the 65th minute, José proceeded with a double substitution as Kakeru and Nana were replaced by Anthony and Ander in their respective positions. The 2 Japanese players' afternoon was fruitful with one goal and an assist for each.
Alan Keegan: Double substitution for Manchester United: replacing number 7, Nana Mishima, and number 19, Kakeru Aizawa... number 21, Ander Herrera, and number 11, Anthony Martial.
After bidding good luck to their replacements, Kakeru and Nana walked towards the home dugout where the equipment manager gave both Japanese players their training jackets back. After a few handshakes and high fives on the bench, Kakeru and Nana took their seats.
"You sure had a great afternoon, you two." Yusuke said. The Japanese midfielder warmed up a little during halftime with the other substitutes, but remained on the bench since as José didn't see it a perfect opportunity to play Yusuke yet.
"Thanks, Yusuke. It was good, but we could have done a little better." Kakeru replied.
"Sometimes when I see you play, I think you set the bar quite high for me for expected performances."
"All about working hard and making the most of your opportunities whenever they come up." Nana replied to Yusuke.
"She's right. We weren't granted our spots when we arrived; we had to fight to get them. For example, I had to fight against at least 3 other forwards to earn a regular spot even if that meant playing on the wing." Kakeru added.
"And who did you steal a spot from?" Yusuke asked Nana.
"I had to compete against Wazza (Wayne Rooney) in the past just to be the playmaker behind the striker. Now I have to deal with Juan (Juan Mata), Ander (Ander Herrera) and sometimes Micki (Henrikh Mkhitaryan) for a spot in midfield. My primary position is as an attacking midfielder, but I can also put a shift in a box-to-box role like Pog."
"The thing at United is that we put healthy internal competition on top of everything. If someone goes down, then the replacement has to be ready to take over. The hardest thing is not to get in the team, but to stay there." Kakeru added to Nana's words.
From that moment, United mostly switched to preserving the 3-goal lead. However, United continued pushing forward a few times, and even earned an indirect free kick in the 83rd minute. The location of the free kick was a little too far to take a good shot on goal, but enough to send a good pass inside the box. Ander was designated to take the free kick.
Daniel Mann: Whipped in by Herrera towards Köhler...
The Spaniard unleashed his long pass towards the far post where Matthias was already jumping higher than his marker. The German defender redirected the ball towards the inside of the other post. At the same time, Anthony escaped his own marker, and tapped the ball inside the goal to make it 4-0.
Daniel Mann: And it's an easy finish for Martial! Herrera to Köhler, and to Martial... It's 4-0!
On the bench, the Manchester United personnel stood up, and applauded the goal.
"It was a well-crafted goal." Yusuke said.
"You see, that's what we were talking about. Anthony replaces me, and scores a goal; all about making the most of your opportunities." Kakeru replied.
"When Zlatan Ibrahimović was on the team, he set the bar that high so Kakeru had to quickly learn how to be a consistent threat in front of goal. Kakeru took his chances, and can now be always dangerous either as a wide forward or a striker." Nana added.
"I see. I have to do the same when the call comes." Yusuke said.
"If there's someone who can make it here, it is you. Time will come, trust me." Kakeru finished.
From there, the final minutes winded down without any other incident as the Brighton players already gave up. Finally, the referee blew his whistle to end the match, and the 72,000+ Manchester United supporters out of the 75,500 spectators cheered in celebration of the emphatic result in the season opener.
In the stands:
"Well done, guys!" Noriko exclaimed.
"It was total domination. I sure enjoyed this." Harry said.
"Kakeru and Nana are just awesome to watch together as players. However, I was a little disappointed that Saeki didn't play today. Mourinho could have given him a few minutes at 4-0." Sayuri said.
"I have a feeling United are holding quite a strong hidden card in hand with him." Robert replied.
"I hope it too." Noriko added.
"We will let you go join your friends now, Noriko. See you in the next home match." Robert said.
"Yeah. See you against Tottenham on the 27th." Noriko replied before she and her relatives parted ways.
Later in the evening, Kakeru, Nana, Yusuke, and Noriko went to a restaurant to celebrate the first victory of the League season with a good meal and some wine.
"For a first victory, you know how to do it in style." Noriko said.
"We sure didn't want to start the season with anything less than a statement of intent." Kakeru replied.
"And we also know that this year's going to be even tougher with 3 rivals instead of just 2 to worry about." Nana added.
"One goal and an assist for each of you, I would call that a clear statement of intent from the start." Noriko said.
"Speaking of start, Arsenal drew their opening game against Southampton at the Emirates, didn't they?" Yusuke asked Noriko.
"Uh... Yes. Araki and Jenpa gave a 2-goal lead for Arsenal, but they gave up 2 goals in the last 10 minutes of the match. The last one was scored in the final minute of injury time."
"It means nothing; it's only one game. The Premier League is a marathon where you have to keep going the distance, and yet unexpected results can pop out of nowhere against any team." Kakeru said.
"Arsenal are still lacking a true leader, but I would not be surprised if they already have their sights on someone. After paying that money for Jenpa, people know they can find quality, and pay top dollar at the same time." Nana added.
"By the way, Yusuke-san... I feel sorry that you didn't play today. My folks and I were really expecting you would at least get a few minutes after last week's performance." Noriko said.
"It's OK. I know what I need to do to earn quality game time and starts. I asked 'Strud' to design a training program that would allow me to bulk up a little, and to improve my stamina. After all, I have to be ready to give and take hits in this league whenever the time comes." Yusuke replied.
"Well, we can all hope the wait will turn out to be worth it in the end." Kakeru said before he held up his glass of wine. "To Yusuke's upcoming first Premier League appearance with United. May it come soon, and may you burst the scene on that day."
“Kanpai!” the 4 friends chorused.