A New Season
In the 5 days following the Community Shield, the Manchester United players returned into a routine training schedule ahead of the Premier League season opener. By around 9:00 AM on the first Saturday of the season, 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 finished in second place to Manchester City by a very significant difference in points in the previous season, Manchester United looked for more consistency in the results and hoped to earn several wins in quick succession to put the pressure on City. However, several pundits believed that Liverpool would be more likely to finish in second place while City would retain their crown. For the Red Devils, a strong statement was a must for the first match of the season.
Saturday August 11
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 12:30 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 is 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.
"Well, I had to endure an entire summer of banter from City fans among my colleagues at work even though we finished with the highest league result since Fergie retired. I hope it will be different this season." Robert said in English so Harry could understand the whole conversation.
"I strongly believe they can do it. 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 the League." Harry said.
"I'm sure they will be working on it, Grandpa. But right now, I hope we have a good start."
"One thing I'm sure of is that your friends will keep on fighting to follow their dreams." Harry said. "After missing out on the World Cup, I can imagine Aizawa wanting to show what he's capable of."
"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 that I heard of." 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.
12:14 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 de Gea (goalkeeper), Antonio Valencia (right-back and captain), Eric Bailly (centre-back), Matthias Köhler (centre-back), Luke Shaw (left-back), Nana (central midfielder), Andreas Pereira (central midfielder), Paul Pogba (central midfielder), Juan Mata (right winger), Kakeru Aizawa (striker), and Alexis Sánchez (left winger) for this season-opening match. 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."
"You did very well in training." Yusuke said.
"Thanks. I'm glad I was able to move up to speed quickly." Nana replied.
"I would have done anything to begin today's match though." 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. They will try to play all on defence, and then try to score on counterattacks. Play smart, and opportunities will come. 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 12:25 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." Harry said to Robert.
"They probably want to ease his way into the team, Grandpa. Andreas Pereira has had a great pre-season; he can take the workload for now too. After all, the Japanese league has a different schedule from the Prem, and Saeki 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 commentators for this match are Rob Hawthorne and Alan Smith.
Rob Hawthorne: A new season starts then for Manchester United. One of which they cannot let the grass grow. They've got to make up ground on Manchester City and Liverpool. José Mourinho said that there would be no excuses. They have got to win.
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 Andreas 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 making a run. Then the Little Witch immediately passed the ball towards his intended course. However, the defender who marked Kakeru tripped the latter just outside the box.
Rob Hawthorne: 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 2 players were discussing about the strategy.
Rob Hawthorne: It's a free kick. Pogba looks like he will take this, but Mishima might also take a part in this situation.
Nana and Pogba, who is colloquially known to all as "Pog", 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, but ran over the ball. A few Brighton players took the bait as the wall jumped in anticipation of a shot, but they were completely fooled. Nana was also making her run behind Pog.
Rob Hawthorne: Pogba runs over the ball...
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.
Rob Hawthorne: And what a shot by Mishima! That was unstoppable! Just 10 minutes in the season, the one they call as the "Little Witch" scores United's first Premier League goal of the campaign. What a time to score!
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."
Alan Smith: Well, you talk about the timing of the goal. That was an exquisite free kick by Mishima. You'd think Paul Pogba would take it, but he goes over the ball. The wall jumps up too early, and it allows Nana Mishima to curl the ball above the wall and into the top corner.
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.
Rob Hawthorne: Köhler recovers... forward to Sánchez.
With blistering speed, Alexis quickly ran through the middle third of the pitch. On that run, Alexis wasn't alone as Kakeru was already almost on the same level with the last defender ahead. The Chilean passed the ball towards Kakeru 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 him. When that split second came, Kakeru hit a very accurate pass back towards Alexis, who then found himself one-one-one with the Brighton goalkeeper.
Rob Hawthorne: Aizawa, great pass back to Alexis Sánchez... Plenty of space!
The Chilean winger immediately unleashed a hard shot between the legs of the goalkeeper, leaving no chance. Suddenly, the crowd erupted as United doubled their lead.
Rob Hawthorne: With a little over 20 minutes gone, Manchester United are running riot! Alexis Sánchez the scorer; Aizawa the provider.
Alan Smith: Well, Brighton left themselves vulnerable to a counterattack. Köhler made a great first pass into the path of Alexis Sánchez, who then passes to Aizawa. The Japanese had no way to go, but it was an easy decision to roll the ball into the path of Sánchez. 2-0. Thank you very much.
Rob Hawthorne: Even if he doesn't score, the Japanese forward can still create mayhem inside the box. And, boy, he's made Brighton pay big time.
"Well done, Niño!" Kakeru exclaimed as he ran after the jubilating Chilean.
"Great pass too!" Alexis 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 Alexis.
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.
Rob Hawthorne: Mishima... finds Mata on the right.
Nana led the swift attack, and then passed to Juan down the right flank. Spotting Kakeru running between 2 Brighton defenders, the Spaniard crossed an aerial pass towards Kakeru, who then redirected the ball towards the goal.
Rob Hawthorne: That's a great 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 Juan for the previous pass to Kakeru. "Nice pass!"
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, Kakeru and Nana had a little chat on the first half.
"That free kick you scored really stung them early on." Kakeru said.
"Thanks. Your little combination with Alexis deflated them." Nana replied. "But you don't look too happy for some reason."
"I guess I'm having a hard time finding my groove as a lone striker. Those defenders are marking me tightly, and I barely make something significant with the ball."
"I see. All you need to do is to run behind the defenders. You will get a good ball, I promise." Nana replied to Kakeru.
"OK, Seven. Just pass the ball in my direction, and I will finish them off." Kakeru said.
The second half started with Kakeru and Nana kicking off the ball. Shortly after the restart, the Brighton players charged forward in the attack. An attempted long ball was headed away by Matthias before it went towards Nana's feet. The Little Witch then swiveled her body while flicking the ball behind the Brighton defenders, where Kakeru was already making his run in full speed.
Rob Hawthorne: Mishima... has teed this one up for Aizawa.
Kakeru continued his mad dash with the ball from the halfway line to the Brighton penalty area. With the last Brighton centre-back left behind, only the goalkeeper stood in the way between Kakeru and his first goal of the new campaign.
Rob Hawthorne: Can he go all the way?
Without any hesitation, Kakeru whipped the shot off the outside of his right boot. The ball was fired like an arrow to the goalkeeper's left and into the top corner. Old Trafford erupted in an instant to thank the Japanese forward.
Rob Hawthorne: YOU BET HE CAN!!! Aizawa rounds it off for Manchester United in the most spectacular manner! 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.
Alan Smith: That was as sweet of a finish as you like by Aizawa, but talk about Mishima's ability to pick the right pass. What about her vision? The cheeky flick forward into the path of Aizawa... and then the strike was emphatic, right into the top corner.
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 the regular striker, Romelu Lukaku, and midfielder Ander Herrera 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 19, Nana Mishima, and number 10, Kakeru Aizawa... number 21, Ander Herrera, and number 9, Romelu Lukaku.
"Good game, Knight." Romelu gave Kakeru the double high five.
"Thanks. Go and get them, Big Rom." Kakeru replied.
"Well done, Brujita (Little Witch)." Ander said to Nana.
"Good luck, Ando." Nana replied as she gave the double high five to Ander.
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 I 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), Jess (Jesse Lingard), and Ander (Ander Herrera) 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. Alexis was designated to take the free kick.
Rob Hawthorne: Whipped in by Alexis Sánchez... towards Köhler...
The Chilean 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, Romelu escaped his own marker. The big Belgian, who was United's top scorer in last season, tapped the ball inside the goal to make it 4-0.
Rob Hawthorne: And it's an easy finish for Lukaku! It's 4-0! It's the icing on a cake for Manchester United. The man who just returned from his post-World Cup vacation has got the 4th goal, and he's picked up where he left off.
Alan Smith: It was a very good ball by Sánchez, but you have to give Köhler credit on the goal. Köhler had to deal with 2 Brighton players at the far post. And instead of going for goal himself, he flicked the ball towards Lukaku, who had to adjust himself slightly. And as soon as Lukaku connected, he knows he's done enough to give the goalkeeper no chance. Brighton caught cold again.
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. Lukaku 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 by any means. 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.
PEEP PEEP PEEP!!!
Rob Hawthorne: Manchester United have started their season with bang. They came out storming at Brighton with 2 goals in the first half, including a wonderful free kick by Nana Mishima. Then Kakeru Aizawa capped his afternoon with the 3rd goal for his team before his replacement, Romelu Lukaku completed the scoreline. The season has just started, but last season’s runner-ups have made their statement. Final score: Manchester United 4-0 Brighton.
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 26th." Noriko replied before she and her relatives parted ways.
In the following evening, Kakeru, Nana, Yusuke, and Noriko went to a restaurant to celebrate the first victory of the Premier 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 will play against Manchester City at the Emirates tomorrow. Do you think Arsenal can win?" Yusuke asked Noriko.
"Uh, well... I don't think they will beat City. Arsenal have sure improved their squad, but I don't think they have the right level of chemistry and skill to defeat City." Noriko replied.
"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.
"It may take some time, but Arsenal have a world-class striker, a great playmaker, and a midfield beast with leadership skills. If they can develop some chemistry together with the other players, Arsenal can quickly become a very dangerous team to play against." Nana added.
"By the way, Yusuke-san... I feel sorry that you didn't play today. I know Andreas did well today in midfield, but my folks and I were really expecting you would at least get a few minutes out there." Noriko said.
"It's OK. I know what I need to do to earn the right to play. I have been tasked to follow 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 it will be fully worth the wait 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.