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Once Teammates, Now Opponents :Previous Chapter«Home Page»Next Chapter: European Night at Old Trafford

Red Devils vs. Toffees

Sunday September 2

West Didsbury, Manchester, UK

In the evening, the Manchester United team arrived at Piccadilly station after a 2.5-hour train ride from London to Manchester. From there, Kakeru drove Nana and Yusuke back towards their duplex in less than 15 minutes. Despite the disappointment of losing the match against Arsenal a few hours earlier, Yusuke accepted to have a quick dinner at Kakeru and Nana's place before he'd return to his own apartment.

"Tadaima! (We're home!)" Nana said, but no one answered.

"Noriko may already be asleep. She has to be at Trafford General early tomorrow for her clinical apprenticeship in orthopedics. Nana and I also have clinical clerkship work for tomorrow too." Kakeru said.

"Possible. I'll check if we have something we can quickly eat for dinner for tonight."

"I would like to borrow you that new video game you just bought. Can I?" Yusuke asked.

"It should be there somewhere on the table in my room upstairs. You can go and look for it." Kakeru replied.

Yusuke walked up the stairs, and found the video game he was looking for. However, the door of the nearby bathroom opened up, and Noriko came out just as Yusuke came out of the bedroom. Noriko only has a towel wrapped around her naked body.

"Yu-Yusuke-san!" Noriko's face was getting crimson red. The shock was so great that she lost her grasp on her towel, and dropped it on the floor.

"He-Hello, Noriko-chan." Yusuke, with his cheeks also turning red a little, couldn't find other words to say.

Suddenly, Noriko screamed so loudly that it echoed in the whole apartment. Immediately, Kakeru and Nana ran up the stairs to see what was going on.

"Noriko, what's going on?" Kakeru and Nana asked together. However, they were shocked when they saw the naked Noriko sitting on the floor, trying to hide as much of her own nudity as she could. Nana immediately grabbed Yusuke, and then pushed both him and Kakeru away.

"Down the stairs, you two! Quick march!" Nana ordered to both Kakeru and Yusuke before she turned towards Noriko. "I already told you before: make sure not to come out of the shower with just a towel."

Quickly and without asking questions, Kakeru and Yusuke walked down the stairs to the kitchen.

"Did I hear it right, Kakeru? Did that happen to you before?" Yusuke asked.

"(sigh) Yes, it happened a few times to me before."

"Seriously, Kakeru, she is gorgeous. You sure you were never tempted by her?"

"Yusuke!"

"OK, I stop there, but I'm asking a serious question."

"Look, I know you have very good looks. Girls have been all over you since high school, and I'm sure you have lots of success with them, but please stop asking me that because I have 2 women living with me." a shocked Kakeru replied.

"The truth is... I haven't had that much success with girls. I had a girlfriend, but that didn't work out. Then I had a few flings, but I never found one woman who would be a great prospect to become a long-term partner. It's not easy being a famous player who tries to find the right woman." Yusuke replied with the sincerest tone in his voice.

"I'm really sorry to hear about it, Yusuke." Kakeru asked.

"Anyway, enough talk about women. I'll see if I can grab some dinner." Yusuke finished.

At the same time Kakeru and Yusuke had their discussion, Nana and Noriko had their own talk upstairs after Noriko covered herself with a bathrobe,

"I... I can't believe I flashed my naked body to him. He saw everything. How can I be so clumsy?" Noriko said.

"No need to dwell on it, Noriko. I agree with you on one thing though: it was really clumsy, just like you did a few times before." Nana replied.

"But why him of all people? Why?" Noriko asked out loud.

"Is there something wrong? Why are you still so uncomfortable around Yusuke?"

"It's... It's because he reminds me of Suguru-san somehow, Nana. I know this makes little sense, but I cannot describe it otherwise."

"I see. As far as I can remember, Yusuke has always been someone very different from Suguru-san. Please give him a chance to become a close friend to you at least; he's a very good person, and it will be worth opening yourself to him. Just take a moment to think about it." Nana finished.

The last words left Noriko with food for thought.


Sometime later in the same evening, Yusuke already went back to his apartment after he and his 2 teammates finished dinner. Meanwhile, Kakeru, Nana, and Noriko had a little talk about what happened earlier in the match against Arsenal.

"During the match against Arsenal, I felt something different today when I went out there." Kakeru said.

"How different?" Noriko asked.

"It was more than anger. Jenpa's smirks and arrogant look in his eyes stirred something inside me. It was something I never felt against any opposition before."

"We think we know where to look at for an explanation. Noriko… you and your parents have known the rivalry against Arsenal in the 1990s and 2000s. How was it?" Nana asked.

"It was pure hatred. At the time, both teams had players who had power, skills, pace, experience, and aggression. You know that 2-team rivalries fighting at the top often exist in Spain, in Scotland, and sometimes in Germany, but it rarely happened in England. However, United and Arsenal did just that for almost a decade."

"That much?" Kakeru asked.

"Yep! My parents and I despised Arsenal very deeply during those years. United fans hated Arsenal's players and fans; Arsenal fans felt the same towards us. When the match started, both teams hated each other and things could get heated quickly. According to what I saw of today's match, there were sparks between both teams, and it was reminiscent of the old rivalry. What Kakeru felt was probably glimpses of that kind of hatred."

"I don't know if Jenpa's arrogance gave Arsenal more self-confidence, but I can say that Oda and Araki led the way with their commitment. They knew exactly where and how to make us look bad." Kakeru said.

"If that's the case, what is the way to prepare ourselves mentally for the next time we play against them?" Nana asked.

"Nana, Kakeru... What I'm about to give you for an advice about it might go against your respective natures, but it's better if I tell you in advance. In order to prepare yourself for such a battle, you have to be ready to feed off that hatred of your opponents in order to become even more ruthless. Opponents, including those who are your friends off the pitch, have to fear you out there because it's the most ruthless player who will win the duels that will add up to make the difference between winning and losing."

"How can I do that against long-time friends who are also fellow teammates with the national team? I played intense matches against friends before, but never to the point of forgetting the friendly nature of our rivalries." Kakeru asked.

"I'm not sure I can do it either. You're asking a lot from us." Nana added.

"You won't have a choice; Araki and Oda already showed how ruthless they can be together with Jenpa today. Yusuke-san displayed some of that ruthlessness against Araki when he came on as well. Players have to cast their friendships aside to become worst enemies in those matches for 90 minutes. At times, there will be situations where you will have to fight your way against friends in order to win the match, and to defend your own teammates. That is part of being a professional."

"This is not going to be easy for us, Noriko. We were really fond of them as our senpais." Nana said.

"I never said it would be easy, but it will be necessary. Still, it is early days though. It's no use thinking about that now. When the time comes, I will help both of you in your mental preparation." Noriko replied.

"I hope we will be ready by then. Meanwhile, I have the upcoming 2 matches in Japan to think about." Kakeru said.

"That's right! Looks like the JFA will make you travel some distance to play against Chile and Costa Rica even though it's at home."

"Spot on, Noriko." Nana said.

"Yep, we first play in Sapporo on Friday and then in Suita on the Tuesday after that." Kakeru added.

"Just make sure you come back in good health for the match against Everton." Noriko replied.

"I can't promise to start that match, but I will make myself available." Kakeru replied.

"Yeah, but it's time to get some sleep." Nana said.

"Thanks for reminding us. Let's go to sleep then." Noriko finished.

In the following day, Kakeru and Yusuke took the plane to fly all the way back to Japan while Nana remained in Manchester. The national team saw the September 7 match against Chile cancelled because of a major earthquake that shook Sapporo and created several power outages in the region. Then on September 11, Japan knocked Costa Rica out by a score of 3-0 in Suita. Then Kakeru and Yusuke flew back to Manchester, got rid of the jet lag, and then returned to training ahead of the Premier League match against Everton.


Saturday September 15

Manchester United vs. Everton (Premier League match 5)

Old Trafford, Manchester, UK

One of the reasons for early kickoff times such as 12:30 PM on Saturdays is television. Because of an arcane law designed to protect attendances at the stadiums, games at the traditionally scheduled time of 3:00 PM on Saturday afternoons aren't televised within the United Kingdom. Although all teams are drilled to hold training sessions in the mornings, there are some teams performing better than others in early matches. There is no rational explanation behind it, and the main challenge for both teams is to hope that "the morning coffee has kicked in."

In the Manchester United dressing room:

"I didn't ask you this before... is Noriko-san still mad at me for that little incident from 2 weeks ago?" Yusuke asked.

"She was shocked, but I don't think she holds any ill feelings about it. Why?" Kakeru returned the question.

"I want to make up with her, but I'm not sure how and when to do it."

"I can't tell you how to do it, but I'm sure it will be just fine if you're the one making the first step towards her." Kakeru said. "Just show her some good will."

"I'll see what I can do after the match." Yusuke replied.

Several minutes later and following the manager's speech, Nana and Yusuke stood among the 11 starters for Manchester United while Kakeru was among the substitutes in the players' tunnel. Meanwhile the Everton team has considerably changed over the years, so much that Nana would talk about it.

"Such a different team." Nana said.

"What do you mean?" Yusuke asked.

"Not that long ago, we used to face the likes of Leighton Baines, Ashley Williams, Kevin Mirallas, Yannick Bolasie, and Wayne Rooney."

"Speaking of Wayne Rooney, what was he like as a teammate and as a footballer?" Yusuke asked.

"Very fierce competitor, much better as a teammate." Nana replied. "You would have liked him even though he slowed down in recent years."

"I guess so too." Yusuke finished.

Then Nana noticed that Yusuke was focusing his attention on one particular player in the opposition.

"Who are you looking at?" Nana asked.

"I'm looking at their number 10." Yusuke replied, which prompted Nana to look at Everton's central attacking midfielder, Gylfi Sigurdsson. "I'm studying him."

"Just keep it simple." Nana said as she gave Yusuke a friendly tap on the shoulder.

"Our team is not just about a few individuals. I know what you guys think about in your gameplan; the goals can come from any of us." Everton midfielder and former United player Morgan Schneiderlin said.

"We know what your team's strengths and weaknesses are, Morgan. We'll make it count where it matters: on the scoreboard." Nana replied.

"We'll see it on the pitch, Nana."

"I expect it, Morgan." Nana finished.

Within the following seconds, the referee ordered both teams to come on the pitch. Under the applause of the home fans, Nana and Yusuke switched themselves into game mode. Meanwhile, Kakeru followed his fellow Manchester United substitutes on their way towards the bench. Because Kakeru played the whole match for Japan a few days ago, Andrew decided to have him start on the bench as a go-to player in case a spark is needed.

As a result, the starting XI for Manchester United looked like this: David de Gea (goalkeeper), Antonio Valencia (right-back and captain), Chris Smalling (centre-back), Mathias Köhler (centre-back), Ashley Young (left-back), Nana Mishima (central midfielder), Yusuke Saeki (central midfielder), Paul Pogba (central midfielder), Jesse Lingard (right forward), Romelu Lukaku (striker), and Alexis Sánchez (left forward). The most noticeable addition to the Manchester United starting lineup was the return of veteran Englishman Ashley Young at left-back. Young was replacing Luke Shaw, who was given a rest on the bench ahead of the upcoming UEFA Champions League match in midweek.

On the other side, Everton fielded the following starting XI: Jordan Pickford (goalkeeper), Seamus Coleman (right-back), Phil Jagielka (centre-back and captain), Mason Holgate (centre-back), Lucas Digne (left-back), Idrissa Gueye (central midfielder), Morgan Schneiderlin (central midfielder), Theo Walcott (right winger), Gylfi Sigurdsson (attacking midfielder), Richarlison (left winger), and Cenk Tosun (striker).

Meanwhile in the stands, Noriko saw Yusuke finally making the starting XI.

"Yusuke Saeki is starting!" Noriko said.

"He deserves it. I liked his part against Arsenal." Robert replied.

"I hope he won't be too nervous out there." Harry said.

"If what Kakeru and Nana said of him is true, he will get his mind into business pretty quickly." Sayuri replied.

"He will have a good first test against Sigurdsson out there, but I'm quite confident after what I saw of him against Araki." Noriko finished.

Your commentator for this lunchtime match, from the BBC, is Guy Mowbray.

Guy Mowbray: After the defeat against Arsenal last week, United look to get back to winning ways in the League. With a solid cameo debut against Arsenal, Yusuke Saeki earns his first start for Manchester United in this afternoon.

Yusuke's eyes were almost sparkling as he looked around. He was appreciating every single detail of the context and the atmosphere surrounding the occasion for his first ever first-team start for Manchester United.

"Having goosebumps?" Nana asked.

"I do." Yusuke replied. "It's the first time I start an official match for Manchester United, at Old Trafford of all places."

"The best way to get through the initial awe is to feed yourself with the energy from this crowd. Believe in what you trained for." Nana gave Yusuke a tap on his shoulder before both players moved into their respective positions for kickoff.

Everton kicked things off the match. Only 5 minutes into the match, Everton were already conceding most of ball possession time to Manchester United, and set themselves up to hit at United on counterattacks. However, such approach also meant that Everton would have to hold their ground against opposition attacks for most of the time. Also whenever Everton had the ball, the visiting players in blue were submitted to high pressure from the home players in red.

Guy Mowbray: Cleared towards Digne, who passes it to Holgate.

Everton's left-back, Lucas Digne, passed the ball towards the nearest central defender, Englishman Mason Holgate. As Manchester United players put on some pressure on the Everton defender, the latter kicked the ball back deep in United's half where Matthias was standing.

Guy Mowbray: Headed down by Köhler for Saeki...

"Yusuke!" Pog shouted for a pass.

Gylfi Sigurdsson came in sticking his leg out to tackle Yusuke down. However, Yusuke used his hands to push himself up, resist against Sigurdsson's persistent shoving, and finally pass the ball forward for Pog. The referee gave United the advantage.

Guy Mowbray: The referee lets Saeki go... Pogba... on the left for Sánchez.

Alexis waited for the perfect opportunity, and then beat Everton's right-back towards the inside. Quickly pondering his options, the Chilean forward passed the ball towards the front of the box where Yusuke as ready to unload a left-footed strike from distance.

'Here it goes!' Yusuke thought.

Guy Mowbray: Now Saeki with the SHOT!

The shot bent across the face of goal, so much that Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was not able to reach the ball with his fully stretched right arm. Fortunately for the goalkeeper, the ball struck the outside of the post, and flew behind, resulting only in a goal kick for Everton.

Guy Mowbray: Just hit the outside of the post. Saeki was that close of scoring his second goal in 2 League matches.

Yusuke grimaced as he just saw the result of his effort producing nothing in the end. 'I was sure I had it.' Yusuke thought.

"It's OK!" Romelu said while applauding in approval of the last attempt.

"Good effort, Yusuke!" Nana added.

The game continued for a while with nothing exciting on the attack as United were still held by Everton's compact defensive setup. At the other end, Everton didn't have a crack at the Manchester United goal yet as all of their counterattacks were ineffective. In the 23rd minute, a little moment of controversy left its mark on the first half of the match.

Guy Mowbray: Saeki… looking for options, finds Lukaku.

Yusuke sent a long ball forward to Romelu, but the Belgian striker couldn't find his way past the Everton defenders at the edge of the box after receiving the pass. As a result, Romelu passed the ball back towards Jesse.

Guy Mowbray: No way forward for him... Lingard... finds Valencia on the overlap...

As Jesse knew that Antonio was running behind him, the English forward immediately passed the ball into his English teammate's path. Making a dash inside and towards the edge of the Everton box, Antonio crossed the ball towards Romelu. However, but an Everton player cut the pass before it reached its recipient. Nevertheless, the ball went back towards Pog, who was lurking outside of the box.

Guy Mowbray: Pogba with the shot! It was blocked...

The shot was stopped by the Everton defender Phil Jagielka, but United's French midfielder was preparing to take a second attempt. However, Morgan Schneiderlin stood in the way between Pog and Jagielka. Then Pog took a shot that struck Schneiderlin's arm.

Guy Mowbray: Oh, was that a hand ball by Schneiderlin?

The Manchester United players and fans alike immediately screamed for a penalty as the apparently illegal contact was made inside the penalty area, but the referee didn't signal anything. The ball was finally cleared on the sidelines by Lucas Digne.

"How did you not see that? He knocked the ball away with his arm inside the box!" Pog asked the referee while making sure to point towards the left arm.

"Come on, ref! His arm was that high when he touched that ball. It was impossible to miss that." Romelu also asked for an explanation.

"From where I stood, I didn't see anything. Even the assistant didn't call it." the referee replied shortly, not wanting to hear any more.

"That was a very poor decision, ref." Nana mumbled to herself.

Guy Mowbray: There is no possible doubt: it was a hand ball. The Everton manager would say it wasn't intentional, but any other manager, player or fan would say it was a penalty. Everton have a break.

Meanwhile, Noriko and her parents were watching the action unfolding far away in the Eastern half of the pitch. They saw the last controversial incident from their position, and they were as displeased as any of the other United fans in the attendance.

"I don't believe this!" Noriko lamented.

"How did he not see that? Even I could see it from far here" Sayuri said in Japanese.

"I don't know. Either him or the linesman should have seen it." Robert replied.

"It speaks volumes that the standard of refereeing is very low these days." Harry said.

"No kidding. The quality of football referees is so far behind rugby's now." Noriko remarked.

"Indeed, it has become a joke compared to many other sports. The game of football deserves better officiating for all the money it makes." Robert added.

Later in the 30th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Sánchez... looking for Lukaku.

From his position slightly on the left side of pitch, Alexis slightly cut inside his marker, and aimed for the through pass to Romelu. However, the pass was cut by Mason Holgate. The loose ball came towards Morgan Schneiderlin, who then passed it back to his captain Jagielka.

Guy Mowbray: Cleared away by Jagielka...

What was intended as a clearance became an unintentional pass to the speedy winger, Theo Walcott. The English winger was making a sneaky run behind Matthias, and was on a dangerous run towards the Manchester United goal.

Guy Mowbray: Here's Walcott... He's behind Köhler, and he can run all the way!

Both players got into a sprint towards United's goal. Matthias gained his ground right next to Walcott, and used the right arm to deny the space on the inside. When both players arrived inside the penalty area, Walcott pushed the ball a little ahead of himself before he instinctively grabbed Matthias' arm. Within a split second, Walcott dragged both players on the ground. At the same time, the loose ball was caught by United's goalkeeper.

"Hey, peno!" Walcott pleaded his case, but then put his hands on his head in despair as he was not awarded the penalty, but the play was allowed to continue instead. Everton players, coaches and fans were furious at the referee.

Guy Mowbray: That last touch by Walcott probably got the decision against him as David De Gea was going to pick up the ball anyway.

On the Manchester United bench, players, and coaches alike sighed in relief that the Everton winger didn't create any damage in what was an unexpected counterattack.

"That was a close call." Ander said.

"At first, Walcott had the advantage on Matthias. But Matthias didn't give up, and he used his body as a shield to deny the inside. There were 2 things the referee didn't like: first, the ball was far too far ahead to create a real point blank chance out of it; second, Walcott grabbed Matthias to drag everyone on the ground. That's why Everton didn't get the penalty." Kakeru replied.

"Some fine eye for detail you have, Knight."

"Nana taught me a lot of things when we scouted our opponents together, Ando." Kakeru finished before he switched back into his thoughts. 'Still, it was too close for comfort. The Boss warned us about their ability to launch counterattacks.'

In the 38th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Mishima has the ball now...

Nana crossed the halfway line, and ran a few steps ahead with the ball before he spotted Jesse ahead of her. Then United's English winger flicked the ball into Romelu's path in front of the Everton penalty area.

Guy Mowbray: Lingard... to Lukaku...

Finding Mason Holgate in his path, Romelu sent the ball past a couple of Everton defenders. Alexis was ready to strike the one-timer.

Guy Mowbray: SÁNCHEZ!!!

As Alexis' shot was flying towards the top corner at the goalkeeper's right, Pickford immediately jumped in, and deflected the shot away. However, the rebound flew back and further outside of the box where Yusuke was lurking.

Guy Mowbray: Great save by Pickford, but we're not finished yet. Yusuke Saeki...

Yusuke then passed the ball to Antonio. The Ecuadorian tried to find an opening for a cross, but an Everton player stood in, and deflected the ball behind the goal line. Hence it was a Manchester United corner kick. The last action got the home crowd roaring and asking for more.

'Come on, you guys. We have to take advantage of the momentum' Kakeru thought as he watched the action from his seat.

Guy Mowbray: Mishima will take the corner kick. Is there more to come?

Nana played a short corner kick with a quick give-and-go with Alexis before she kicked the ball into the penalty area. As the ball's trajectory dipped, Matthias arrived in, and out-jumped all Everton players. The German defender in red made solid contact with the ball, and the resulting shot flew towards the goal.

Guy Mowbray: It's in for KÖHLER!!! Another great save by Pickford!

Pickford, once again, was in the right place at the right time when he stretched his arms in the shot's trajectory. After the save, one of the Everton defenders cleared the ball out of danger and towards the sidelines. Meanwhile, everyone wearing and cheering red was in disbelief after the Everton goalkeeper just robbed 2 goals on back-to-back chances.

"Damn it! We should be ahead by 2 goals with chances like that." Noriko exclaimed.

"I thought the same too. Hopefully, our team won't get deflated after missing those opportunities." Robert said.

Meanwhile on the Manchester United bench:

"Come on, lads! Keep going!" Kakeru shouted, and clapped his hands to cheer his teammates up.

"We should be ahead by now. Mierda (Shit)." Ander said.

"If we keep attacking them like this to give them nothing, we will win today." Kakeru replied.

The remaining minutes of the first half went down quickly with United pressing, but not quite able to find the breach in Everton's armor. The score remained 0-0 after 45 minutes. Both teams knew what they needed to do, but were also fully aware of what the other team can do with a single mistake to capitalize on.


Around 11 minutes after the halftime whistle:

"Do you think Butler will make any changes, Grandpa?" Noriko asked.

"Considering we played well in the first half, and limited their chances in the first half, things should stay the same. If there's one player who could make way for the first change, bar an injury, it would be Kakeru coming on for Jesse Lingard." Harry replied.

"I agree. There's no point changing anything just yet unless there's a knock somewhere." Robert added. "It depends of what kind of attacking shape we want to use."

"I would like to see Kakeru coming in to break the deadlock. I think it's going to happen if he comes on while it's still 0-0." Noriko said.

"I have no doubts about Kakeru's talent, but I wondered if he can do it considering that Kakeru played the whole match for Japan on Tuesday unlike Yusuke Saeki." Sayuri said in Japanese.

"Knowing Kakeru like I do, I stand by my point." Noriko replied.

At the same time Noriko finished the conversation, players from both teams came out of the players' tunnel for the second half. As predicted, the 22 players who started the match remained on the field. Meanwhile, the substitutes still had their track jackets on after they did a few warm-up exercises during halftime. Everton started the second half with a high-intensity pressure in midfield, but were not able to build a sustained attack. It wasn't too long before United moved forward to test Everton's defenses again.

In the 54th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Saeki... nice control…

After he dribbled a bouncing ball past a nearby Everton player, Yusuke passed the ball forward to Pog, who then performed a quick 1-2 play with Jesse. The Manchester United midfielder was dashing towards the Everton penalty area.

Guy Mowbray: Give-and-go with Lingard... Pogba... 2 red shirts in the box...

Pog looked for options: he had Alexis and Romelu lurking and waiting for a pass. However, Phil Jagielka stood in just as Pog sent the ball across the front of the 6-yard box. The ball was deflected behind the byline, and thus Everton conceded a corner kick.

Guy Mowbray: Manchester United have a corner...

On the corner kick, Alexis sent a long aerial ball inside the Everton penalty area. Despite a huge defensive presence at the near post, Matthias' head was the one that made contact with the ball.

Guy Mowbray: The cross... KÖHLER'S HEADER... IT'S AGAINST THE POST!!!

The ball from Matthias' header struck the post, and the rebound then bounced off Jesse's hip to roll back towards Pickford. However, the whistle was blown, and play was quickly halted under the looks of disbelief from the Old Trafford crowd.

Guy Mowbray: THE FLAG'S GONE UP! It's being waved, the ball has not gone in, and Pickford has it in his grateful gloves.

At the very same time Matthias headed the ball towards the post, Jesse was standing offside by fine margins, hence the play being called. Even Jesse was a little surprised by the velocity of the rebound, so he had very little control with it.

"Ah! Damn it!" Jesse cursed at himself.

Although United continued to control most of the ball possession time, the game continued to be an affair of fine margins that could go one way or the other. In the 60th minute, the Toffees started having scoring chances of their own against the Red Devils.

Guy Mowbray: Everton now controlling the play, and looking to strike. Lucas Digne... finds Richarlison.

Indeed, Everton were in a phase where they controlled the ball a little better with good passes. Looking for options, Richarlison found the moment to pass the ball to Gylfi Sigurdsson as the latter found some open space.

Guy Mowbray: He finds Sigurdsson...

Realizing that Sigurdsson was looking to take a shot from distance rather than pass the ball, Yusuke dashed, and then ran into the shooting trajectory as Sigurdsson took the shot. However, the shot deflected off the inside of Yusuke's left leg, and rolled towards the goal.

"Damn it!" Yusuke cursed.

The ball appeared to be rolling quickly towards the bottom corner of the goal, but David dived in full stretch, and just managed to get enough of the shot with his right hand to let it roll away for a corner kick.

Guy Mowbray: Just turned aside by De Gea! It was a difficult stop, but he made it.

On the way to defensive positions ahead of the upcoming corner, Yusuke looked towards his goalkeeper, and nodded his head as a way to say "Good save".

When the Toffees took the corner kick through a long ball from Sigurdsson, Matthias cleared the ball away with his head. However, the Everton player who stood closest to the halfway line sent the ball back towards Sigurdsson to start another threat on the Red Devils' goal.

Guy Mowbray: Sigurdsson...

With Yusuke at some distance away because he was man-marking another opponent on the corner kick, Sigurdsson unleashed a quick low cross that rolled towards the edge of the 6-yard box. Standing unmarked and ready for the easy tap-in goal was Cenk Tosun. However, David held his ground once again as he stuck his left leg out in a reflex motion to stop the shot at point blank.

Guy Mowbray: TOSUN! STOPPED BY DE GEA AGAIN!

After a scramble with both sides attempting to control the ball in the air in the following 5 seconds, David caught the ball, and stopped the play in his team's favor.

"Great save, Big Dave!" Matthias said.

"Thanks, Big Dave! You really saved our butts just now." Yusuke congratulated his goalkeeper with a tap on the shoulder.

"It's OK, but try to slow down the play now if any." David gave his teammates his advice to counter Everton's rising momentum.

Feeling that his team was in need of a new spark in order to regain the initiative over their blue opponents from Merseyside, Andrew ordered a double substitution in the 68th minute. The 2 players coming in had the task of revitalizing the Red Devils' attacking pressure over the Toffees.

Alan Keegan: Substitution for Manchester United: replacing number 14, Jesse Lingard... number 10, Kakeru Aizawa.

"Go get them, Knight!" Jesse said to Kakeru while giving him the double high five in the substitution process.

"Count on me."

After Kakeru walked onto the pitch, the 4th official indicated the next substitution to take place for the Red Devils.

Alan Keegan: Substitution for Manchester United: replacing number 18, Ashley Young... number 23, Luke Shaw.

Kakeru went straight to Nana to pass on further instructions from Andrew.

"So what's the plan, Kakeru?" Nana asked.

"On paper, I'm standing right in front of you, but you're free to interchange with me or move in the number 10 slot." Kakeru replied.

"Got it. Let's go!"

The game continued, and Manchester United started regaining the initiative in the match. It took a few minutes for the Red Devils to find the right attacking pace, but the substitutions were starting to take their effect in the 74th minute.

Guy Mowbray: Long ball by Valencia... it's cleared by Holgate.

The clearance by Mason Holgate only went as far as to Pog at a little less than 40 yards from goal. Pog then passed the ball to Kakeru, who moved forward a few yards before making a cheeky back heel pass for Romelu.

Guy Mowbray: Lukaku's in position to shoot...

Instead of hitting the ball as 2 Everton players jumped forward to block any shooting attempt, the Belgian striker in red ran with the ball in front of the penalty area, and then passed the ball back to Kakeru towards the side of the penalty area.

Guy Mowbray: He found Aizawa on the edge of the penalty area... Looking for the cross.

Spotting a red shirt dashing across the near post, Kakeru crossed the ball towards that teammate. The player in question was Nana, who deflected the ball with a half volley towards the goal. However, the shot also deflected off an Everton defender and then off the post.

Guy Mowbray: It's Mishima! That's off the post!

Without any hesitation, Lucas Digne immediately headed the ball out of bounds, allowing his fellow Toffees to breathe. Meanwhile, Nana could only look in disbelief at the opportunity that just went by. The Old Trafford crowd was buzzing as well.

In the 75th minute:

Guy Mowbray: There are 2 substitutions coming for Everton. It looks like it is the end for Cenk Tosun and Richarlison. They will be replaced by Oumar Niasse and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

Both changes were just about replacing players with equivalents at their respective positions. They were meant to add some fresh legs for Everton with 15 minutes and stoppages to play.

In the 79th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Everton trying to create something on the break. Calvert-Lewin...

The following pass was intended for Sigurdsson to start a counterattack. However, it was quickly intercepted by Yusuke, still inside the Everton half. From there, Yusuke promptly passed to Pog, who then passed the ball to Antonio on the right flank.

Guy Mowbray: Valencia for Manchester United...

Dashing along the right flank, Antonio finally arrived on the edge of Everton's penalty area when he sent a quick low pass across the inside of the box. Running on the ready for a one-timer shot, Nana immediately blasted the ball. Unfortunately, the shot was blocked by Mason Holgate.

Guy Mowbray: Mishima! It hit Holgate! It comes back to Mishima again...

The rebound went immediately back to Nana, who only needed a split second to see her best option. Following her instincts, Nana went for the lob pass ahead for Kakeru. The Japanese forward managed to get between 2 blue shirts, and stay unmarked at 6 yards from goal. Without any hesitation, Kakeru went for a header shot towards Pickford's goal.

Guy Mowbray: AIZAWA! TERRIFIC SAVE BY PICKFORD!!!

In desperation, Pickford stretched his right hand, and deflected Kakeru's header away and behind. The end result was only a corner kick and even more disbelief from the local supporters. At the same time Nana moved towards the corner flag, Pickford was still reprimanding his teammates for the poor defensive coverage. On the following corner kick, Nana's long ball flew towards Romelu. Unfortunately for United, Romelu's attempted header was cleared away by an Everton player, and the following high-tempo series of passes by the players in red was wasted into a goal kick when the last pass went astray and out of bounds.


For the following 7 minutes, United continued to attack relentlessly. However, the Toffees were still holding on the hope of getting out of Old Trafford with at least a draw. Everton's final substitution saw Lucas Digne being replaced by the very experienced Leighton Baines for that particular purpose. The players in blue were literally "parking the bus" in front of Pickford's goal. By the 86th minute, the Red Devils' odds of breaking the deadlock were dwindling by the minute as both teams were getting exhausted. However, United had a throw-in deep in Everton's territory.

Guy Mowbray: Valencia... Aizawa... now Saeki.

Looking for options, Yusuke spotted Romelu making a run inside the penalty area. At the decisive split second, the Japanese midfielder unleashed a quick pass straight towards Romelu's upper body.

Guy Mowbray: Lukaku has a chance...

Unfortunately for Romelu, an Everton defender slid in with a tackle to take the ball away. Kakeru and another Everton defender then came in fighting for the ball; the Japanese managed to shield the ball for a split second. Showing his back to the goal, Kakeru knew he had to act quickly.

"Kakeru!" Nana shouted.

The Japanese forward in red immediately pushed a pass back towards the edge of the 18-yard box. Despite the presence of 3 Everton players in her path, Nana unleashed a powerful low shot between her nearest marker's legs and towards the bottom corner of the goal. This time, Pickford's hands couldn't stop to the ball from reaching the intended destination.

Guy Mowbray: MISHIMAAA!!! 1-0 UNITED! IT'S A THUMPING STRIKE!

Under a thunderous noise of joyful cheers inside Old Trafford, Nana ran towards the nearest corner flag, and slapped it down before she got mobbed by Kakeru and their other teammates in the celebrations.

"I KNEW YOU COULD DO IT! WOOHOO!!!" Noriko shouted. She was only a few yards from the celebrating United players.

"You did it, Seven!" Kakeru said.

"Thanks! Great pass, Kakeru." Nana replied.

"Great shot, Nana!" Pog said.

"Well done, you guys!" Romelu added. "Beautiful!"

"We're almost there, so stay focused." Matthias reminded everyone of the next task at hand in the match. "Let's give them nothing!"

Guy Mowbray: Just only 4 minutes plus stoppages to go now. United have broken the deadlock, thanks to the Little Witch.

On the Manchester United bench:

'There is absolutely nothing these two can't do together on the pitch. They are perfectly synched on the same wavelength, and know how to find each other when it matters the most.' Andrew thought as he looked on with a smile, and applauded his players.

Trailing behind on the scoreboard, the Toffees had no choice but to bring more players forward at a great risk. However, the Red Devils of Manchester were also trained to hold onto the lead, and to hit the opposition swiftly on counterattacks in those situations. Just less than 3 minutes after Nana's goal, disaster struck Everton.

Guy Mowbray: Sigurdsson... good pressure by Yusuke Saeki.

As Gylfi Sigurdsson tried to pass the ball forward under Yusuke's very tight marking, the ball went loose towards Matthias, who then passed the ball back to the Manchester United goalkeeper.

Guy Mowbray: Köhler... back to De Gea, who clears it away.

David's long clearance flew beyond the halfway line. At that position, Romelu managed to get in front of Mason Holgate and chested the ball down. Spotting Kakeru making a dash in full speed, Romelu unleashed the through pass towards the Japanese striker's path. Although Phil Jagielka was trying to keep pace with Kakeru, the latter was clearly about to outrun the Everton captain.

Guy Mowbray: Aizawa's through. It's Kakeru Aizawa...

As Kakeru was entering the Everton penalty area, Phil Jagielka instinctively grabbed Kakeru's shirt from behind in order to regain a positional advantage. The action drew several shouts from the Manchester United supporters and players as the foul was committed inside of the penalty area. Kakeru even fell to the ground as a result of the long grab on his shirt.

Guy Mowbray: Was he pulled down by Jagielka?

PEEP! PEEP!

The referee blew his whistle and immediately pointed towards the penalty spot under the loud cheers from the local supporters. Meanwhile, Kakeru was pumping his fist after he earned the penalty decision in his favor.

Guy Mowbray: It's a penalty for Manchester United!

"YES!" Kakeru shouted.

"Well played, Knight! Well done!" Romelu congratulated Kakeru with a hug.

"We have them now!" Pog added.

Meanwhile the referee asked Phil Jagielka over before he added to Everton's misery by showing the red card. The foul was deemed a deliberate attempt to deny a goalscoring opportunity.

Guy Mowbray: And Phil Jagielka has been shown a red card as well!

Because of the obviousness of the foul, there was not one Everton player complaining against the decision. The Toffees knew that their captain had no choice but to commit the foul. Meanwhile, the 3,000 Everton fans started booing as the penalty taker for United stepped up.

Guy Mowbray: It is Paul Pogba who will take the penalty that could seal all 3 points for United.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"Come on, Pogba." Robert said.

"I hope he doesn't fail us now. I hate that kind of technique if he pulls that again." Noriko added.

Everyone inside Old Trafford had eyes on the penalty taker, who was waiting for the signal from the referee. Only 12 yards and Jordan Pickford separated United from a more comfortable margin to claim a victory.

PEEP!

Pog started his stuttering run at a very slow and nonchalant pace with several steps. But when he came within a yard and a half from the ball, he struck the ball with velocity into the bottom corner at the goalkeeper's right. Pickford could do no nothing as the French midfielder in red doubled United's lead.

Guy Mowbray: POGBA SCORES! And Manchester United have a 2-0 lead. They will claim all 3 points surely now.

Pog was quickly mugged by his teammates after the goal. At that moment, victory for the Red Devils was no longer a doubt to anyone inside Old Trafford.

Alan Keegan: UNITED'S GOAL... SCORED BY NUMBER SIX... PAUL POGBAAA!!!

"Get that one in, Pog! Nice shot!" Kakeru said.

"Well done. They are finished for today." Matthias added.

"Thanks. Let's keep it safe now." Pog replied.

On the other end of the spectrum of emotions, the Everton players could only watch in shock horror as their efforts were officially gone to total waste after 2 quick and late goals from the Red Devils. The visitors lost any motivation to carry on with the fight, and that gave one last opportunity for the local side to rub salt in the wound deep in stoppage time.

Guy Mowbray: Baines with the throw... it's intercepted by Aizawa.

Kakeru intercepted the throw-in pass that was destined for an Everton player. The Japanese forward passed towards Romelu, who then started cutting towards Everton's penalty area. Although he was surrounded by 3 players, Romelu managed to lay the ball off for a dashing Nana.

'I'll have you now.' Nana thought.

Then Nana fooled the defender Holgate completely with an elastico feint as she appeared to be going left before she changed her run to her right inside the danger area.

Guy Mowbray: Mishima's going through!

With a quick point blank shot, Nana left no chance for Pickford as the ball flew to the bottom corner at his right. For the second time in only a few minutes, Nana got the vast majority of the attendance at Old Trafford up for a standing ovation towards her.

Guy Mowbray: 3-0! The scoreline is harsh for Everton, but Nana Mishima, who started it all off with 4 minutes from time, finishes it all off in injury time.

"Way to go, Nana! That was a great run!" Noriko exclaimed as she watched the Manchester United players gathering around Nana in the celebrations.

"Nana-chan has been amazing today!" Sayuri exclaimed.

"I know, Mom. For me, there's no better female player than her at this time, and she even beats most of the guys so easily out there."

"It's the first time she scores 2 goals in a same official match against men, right?" Robert asked.

"It is. She will surely remember this special day, Dad." Noriko replied.

"I'm really happy to be here, and see this moment in my lifetime. Football sure has changed, but it sure can still create unique moments like this one." Harry said to Noriko, who replied with a big smile.

The game finally ended by a final score of 3-0 for Manchester United, back to winning ways in the Premier League and still in the thick of the race to the top despite the defeat against Arsenal. Right after the final whistle, Morgan Schneiderlin was the first to congratulate the Manchester United players.

"Good game, you guys." Morgan said.

"Thanks, Morgan." Kakeru replied.

"Your team kept it tight until the last few minutes. You played well too." Nana added.

"Yeah, it was a close game. You guys have become even better than you were when I left. I hope you'll carry on except against us." Morgan replied.

Kakeru and Nana laughed.

"I wish you a good continuation then." Nana said.

"Best of luck until our next match. See you then." Morgan said.

"I hope we will both be there at Goodison Park. See you next time." Kakeru finished.


After the post-match interviews, some showering, and a change of clothes, Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke joined Noriko just by the exit of the players' tunnel. Noriko was actually allowed by Kakeru and Nana to join them in the tunnel. It was set to be a short meeting before the 3 Japanese players would go home, and then join their teammates later in the evening for a party involving only the Manchester United players.

"You were really awesome today, Nana. It's the first time you score 2 goals in a single match since you joined United." Noriko said.

"Yeah, it was something very special. Still, I would not have been able to do it if it wasn't for Kakeru's efforts. He deserves the plaudits as well."

"You're right, Nana. If we also count the fact that he earned the penalty kick, Kakeru has 2 assists for today's game alone although he didn't score."

"I must say that it wasn't quite my day considering that I missed a great chance before that. Still, I'm glad that I'm still able to contribute that much in a different way." Kakeru replied to Noriko.

"It's OK, Kakeru. That's why you're a dangerous player to play against in this league; the opposition can't predict your next move, but you keep delivering something." Nana said.

Meanwhile, Yusuke was still silent in the middle of the conversation. Kakeru then switched topics a little. "Oh, and by the way, I think Yusuke handled Gylfi Sigurdsson very well in the circumstances. Am I right, Yusuke?" 

"Well, I studied his approach to the game. It wasn't that difficult in the end." Yusuke replied.

"Yeah, but you sure had to go from theory to practice. You were not fazed for most of the time." Nana said.

"Nana is right. I think you played a very solid game, and that's why Everton didn't exploit the middle that often." Noriko added.

"Well, thanks." Yusuke replied.

"Oh, I just remembered that I forgot something in the dressing room. It will take a few minutes." Kakeru said.

"I also have to check one last thing before we get going too. So don't go too far off, you two." Nana also added before she and Kakeru walked away.

"W... Wait! Kakeru! Nana!" Yusuke begged, but to no avail. Suddenly, Yusuke realized that he was now alone with Noriko. "Well, that was unexpected."

"What?" Noriko asked.

"Nothing. You want to walk out there a little?" Yusuke asked.

"Sure. Why not?"

Yusuke and Noriko walked just by the area where the southwestern corner flag was standing.

"When I saw you during the match, you looked quite intense every time we scored, and when the crowd was chanting. Where did you learn to support a team like that?" Yusuke asked.

"My father and my grandfather are huge fans of this club. They also used to be more intense, so I guess I learned a number of things from them, including the banter. I spent my first 7 years of life in this city as well, remember."

"I see. There are female fans at Yokohama, but none of them ever matched that intensity of yours. If anything, I feel fortunate for our club to have strong supporters like you." Yusuke said.

Noriko smiled. "Thanks. In the English culture, football is ecstasy, anguish, joy, and despair. It's a religion. What's good about it regardless is that I'm lucky to support a club that wants to entertain the fans as well as to win."

"That's for sure." Yusuke said before he remembered why he wanted to talk to Noriko in the first place. "Noriko-san... about what happened on 2 weeks ago..."

"Huh?"

Suddenly Yusuke got on his hands and knees with his head bowing towards Noriko. "Sumimasen! Sumimasen! Sumimasen! If there's anything I can do to make amends, just ask me anything. I will do it!"

The scene was unexpected and almost too comical for Noriko to keep her cool, so much that she chuckled a few times.

"First of all, there's no need to make such a scene if you wanted to apologize. I think it's off for at least a week if you thought of something. I'm booked solid with work all over my head for most of the upcoming week. I will attend an all-girls night with my friend Sarah and her friends from medical school on Friday, but you already will be in Huddersfield by then." Noriko said.

"I see."

"However, I don't have anything planned for the Sunday after that. Yeah, I think Sunday the 23rd is perfect if you want us to do all sorts of things in the city." Noriko said.

"Really? Then it will be good for me too. Thank you."

"For now, I hope to see you play against Celtic on Wednesday." Noriko said.

"The Champions League? I want to play in that." Yusuke replied. "I've been dreaming of playing in the UEFA Champions League all my life."

"Just think hard of that dream, and you will get there in no time." Noriko replied with a smile.

At last, Yusuke was obviously glad to see Noriko finally getting comfortable enough around him. Meanwhile, Kakeru and Nana were watching the scene unfolding from distance around the corner. They originally pretended to have something to do elsewhere so they could watch how Yusuke and Noriko would interact with each other.

"Well, it looks like the first step has been made." Kakeru said.

"I agree. It will only get better from now on." Nana finished.

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