European Night at Old Trafford
The UEFA Champions League, known simply as the Champions League, is an annual continental club football organized by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). Introduced in 1992 to replace the former annual European Cup competition which started in 1955, the current competition changed its format to include a group stage and allow multiple entrants from certain countries. Before 1992, the competition was a straight knockout tournament that was only open to the champion club of each country.
Having won the Premier League the previous season, Manchester United entered the tournament as one of the 22 clubs that were qualified automatically while 10 others had to go through qualifying rounds between July and August. The 32 clubs were drawn into 8 groups of 4 teams, and play each other in a double round-robin system between September and December. The 8 group winners and 8 runners-up would then proceed to the knockout phase that culminates with the final match in May. For this particular season, United was drawn in a group that also included Celtic F.C. (Glasgow, Scotland), A.F.C. Ajax (Amsterdam, Netherlands), and Valencia C.F. (Valencia, Spain).
In order to avoid any conflict with domestic competitions, the Champions League plays all its matches in Tuesdays and Wednesdays while the final would be played on a Saturday. On the second Wednesday of September, the quest for European glory began for the red half of Manchester.
Wednesday September 13
Manchester United vs. Celtic (UEFA Champions League group match 1)
Old Trafford, Manchester, UK
Kickoff for a mid-week Champions League match in England is always due at 8:00 PM BST or GMT depending of the time of the year. The reason why "European nights" at Old Trafford are regarded as something special is because they provide a unique and intimidating atmosphere for opposing teams. It is said that Manchester United fans save their voices to up the ante in home Champions League matches, lifting the Manchester United team up higher as the proverbial "12th man" makes his presence felt.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"Tell me more about Celtic's goalkeeper, Lee Chu-Joon. I read that he used to be on Kakeru's team in high school." Sarah said.
"Akitoshi Li, as he was known to everyone at Enoshima and in Japan, was the senior goalkeeper for only one year when Kakeru was a freshman. Apparently, he was amazing for Enoshima, leading them to the national title." Noriko replied.
"You're right about that, Sarah. I watched match highlights and the whole final itself. He pulled off spectacular saves at the right times. At 18, he was already called up by the South Korean Under-21 national side after Enoshima won the Nationals." Noriko said.
"If what you try to say is that he's got talent, it means we will need our lads to wear their best shooting boots tonight." Sarah replied.
"Spot on, Sarah. We definitely need our best to be the best." Noriko finished.
Before the teams came out of the tunnel around 4 minutes before kickoff time, flag bearers have been waving Manchester United flags for several minutes at each end of the pitch to galvanize the crowd. Both teams could already hear the noise inside Old Trafford reaching high levels. Nevertheless, it didn't keep Nana and Kakeru from having a chat with their former Enoshima High School teammate, Akitoshi Li, who is known to all broadcasters as Lee Chu-Joon.
"Akitoshi-san, nice to see you." Kakeru said.
"Great to see you too, Kakeru, Nana-chan." Akitoshi replied.
"So how are you doing in Scotland?" Kakeru asked.
"It took a little time to adapt myself to my new environment last season, but it has been going well since."
"Good. I'm really looking forward to play you at your best tonight." Nana said.
"I look forward to it as well." Akitoshi replied. "Same for you, Kakeru."
"Let's have a good game." Kakeru finished before he and Akitoshi shook hands.
A few minutes later, the signal was given for both teams to come out of the tunnel. At the same time the whole attendance at Old Trafford roared and cheered for their respective teams walking under the stadium's floodlights. Celtic's supporters were known to be very vocal with 3,500 strong, but United's supporters were also voicing their lungs out as well.
"UNITED! UNITED! UNITED!" Noriko and Robert shouted along with the tens of thousands Manchester United supporters present in the stadium.
"Noriko is really into it tonight." Sarah said. Noriko's friend was given Harry's ticket for the night.
"She sure is." Sayuri replied.
After both teams lined up in the middle of pitch, flag bearers waved a giant circular flag of the UEFA Champions League logo in the center circle. Meanwhile, the speakers at Old Trafford played the customary and powerful UEFA Champions League Anthem. It was an orchestral piece in which the vocal chorus is played in UEFA's 3 official languages: French, German, and English.
Ils sont les meilleurs
Sie sind die Besten
These are the champions
Les Grandes Équipes
Once the anthem was over, the whole crowd roared again to show their support. A match between Manchester United and Celtic was always regarded as a special occasion because of the history behind each of the 2 clubs.
Your match commentator for this Champions League campaign is the legendary Clive Tyldesley.
Clive Tyldesley: These 2 clubs have squared off against one another in this competition in 2006 and in 2008, but you can feel there's always something special when they meet. The heirs of the 1968 Wembley winners against the heirs of the 1967 Lisbon Lions, the champions of England against the champions of Scotland, it's Manchester United against Celtic.
For the inaugural match of the Champions League campaign, Andrew proceeded with a few changes to the lineup that started the match against Everton. The lineup read as followed: David de Gea (goalkeeper), Antonio Valencia (right-back and captain), Victor Lindelöf (centre-back), Chris Smalling (centre-back), Luke Shaw (left-back), Ander Herrera (central midfielder), Yusuke Saeki (central midfielder), Kakeru Aizawa (right winger), Nana Mishima (attacking midfielder), Anthony Martial (left winger), and Romelu Lukaku (striker). It was the first time that Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke started an official match altogether. Paul Pogba, Alexis Sánchez, Matthias Köhler, and Jesse Lingard were among the most noticeable substitutes for the start of the match. For Anthony Martial, the manager was giving him an opportunity to make an impression and to regain his trust in the midst of complicated contract talks.
On the other hand, Celtic started with the following starting XI: Lee Chu-Joon/Akitoshi Li (goalkeeper), Mikael Lustig (right-back), Dedryck Boyata (centre-back), Kristoffer Ajer (centre-back), Kieran Tierney (left-back), Scott Brown (central midfielder and captain), Olivier Ntcham (central midfielder), James Forrest (right winger), Tom Rogic (attacking midfielder), Callum McGregor (left winger), and Odsonne Édouard (striker).
The Manchester United field players wore the black shorts and black-red socks with their red shirts; it was the first time that United's home kit for the Champions League did not include white shorts. Meanwhile, the Celtic field players wore green socks, white shorts, and shirts with the characteristic white and green horizontal hoops.
With their eyes set towards the Stretford End, the Celtic players kicked off the match first under thunderous roars from the whole crowd expecting a great match. After Celtic put up a few passes together, Ander intercepted a sloppy pass, and ran with the ball to start a counterattack.
Clive Tyldesley: Now, Herrera with the counterattack... It's towards Aizawa on the right.
Kakeru ran with the ball down his flank. Then he took Kieran Tierney out of the equation with a skillful feint, but got the ball tackled away by Ajer. On the following throw-in, Antonio passed the ball for Ander, who then passed the ball to Yusuke in the middle.
Clive Tyldesley: Saeki sends it in...
Yusuke's aerial ball intended for Romelu was cleared away by a Celtic defender, but the ball took a high trajectory before it came down just outside of the box. At that position, Nana escaped her marker, and struck the ball one-time with a left-footed volley.
Clive Tyldesley: It comes to Mishima!
The shot took a curl towards the top corner, but Akitoshi parried the ball away at the very last second, and the shot was deflected behind for a corner kick. Mesmerized by the save, the United supporters held their hands on their heads in shock. Nana also looked to the heavens in disbelief.
Clive Tyldesley: What a save by Lee! Fantastic effort by Nishima... only matched with a desperate effort by the South Korean goalkeeper. It's a corner kick for Manchester United.
Getting a grip from the brief shock, Nana walked towards the corner flag, and prepared to take the corner kick. United had Chris, Yusuke, Ander, and Romelu inside the box. Upon the referee's signal, Nana took the corner kick.
Clive Tyldesley: Mishima takes... it goes for Lukaku!
Nana kicked the ball towards the "no man's land" in front of the 6-yard box. At that position, Romelu out-jumped the Celtic defenders, and headed the ball towards the top corner at Akitoshi's left side. However, the former Enoshima High School goalkeeper reached the left arm just enough to deflect the ball behind for another corner kick.
"For God's sake! Kakeru and Nana were right about this goalkeeper being a pain." Noriko said, still unable to believe it after she saw the action unfolding from distance almost across the length of the pitch.
"He's very decent indeed." Sarah added.
"He's a very good shot stopper, I'll give you that. The real question for any goalkeeper, however, is: can he show composure? Composure is what sets some keepers apart from the rest." Robert replied.
Clive Tyldesley: Second attempt. Mishima... off Smalling and across the face of goal...
The ball slightly bounced off Chris Smalling's head and then across the face of goal, where Romelu jumped towards the ball. Just a split second before Romelu could head the ball, Akitoshi caught the ball in mid-air. In the ensuing contact, both Romelu and Akitoshi fell to the ground, forcing the referee to call the foul against the Belgian striker.
Clive Tyldesley: It's a foul made by Lukaku, but it was good concentration by Lee. The goalkeeper kept his nerve with that many bodies in front of him.
"Well, we now have the answer. He is more than a good shot stopper." Robert said.
'This is where things can get tricky if this goalkeeper keeps on frustrating United with great saves in succession.' Noriko thought.
Nevertheless, United continued controlling the play for most of the time against Celtic's defenders after that last early chance, but couldn't find a way to get past Akitoshi's efforts yet. The Celtic players could not find a way to build up a serious attack as they were pinned down by high-tempo attacking and defensive pressure from the men in red.
In the 23rd minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Aizawa is on the run again... takes on Ajer. It's a foul.
Kakeru were leading a swift counterattack before he was tripped by the Celtic midfielder 25 yards from goal. The referee awarded the free kick, and the distance was just inside Nana's territory...
Clive Tyldesley: We know Nana Mishima can hit them from that distance, but she also has Martial, Aizawa, and Lukaku in that wall, lurking for rebounds.
Nana struck the ball around the Celtic wall, but Akitoshi parried the curling shot before it hit the low bottom corner. However, the cheer accuracy and pace of the shot made it hard to handle, so much that the rebound went in front of the goalkeeper.
Clive Tyldesley: It's Mishima... It's saved.
The rebound bounced towards Romelu, who overpowered the Celtic player assigned to mark him. The Belgian striker immediately took a shot, but Akitoshi jumped in front of the shot again before it bounced back across. Kakeru also jumped on the second rebound, but Akitoshi closed the small gap quickly enough to make a 3rd save in quick succession before the Celtic defenders cleared the ball away.
Clive Tyldesley: It's Lukaku, saved again! Aizawa, it's saved again!
"SHAPE UP, LADS! BE FIRST ON THE BALL!" Akitoshi shouted at his defenders as he got back up in front of his goal. The South Korean was clearly unhappy with the poor defensive cover from his teammates.
Clive Tyldesley: Magnificent piece of goalkeeping to keep not one, not two, but 3 Manchester United players.
"You gotta be kidding me!" Kakeru exclaimed.
"How did he stop 3 attempts within 3 seconds?" Romelu asked out loud.
"I knew he was good, but I never thought he would be that good." Kakeru replied.
The play carried on, and Akitoshi continued making a few good saves whenever United launched their attacks on the Celtic goal. The South Korean goalkeeper held his team almost on his own, but he was about to see his efforts rewarded when Celtic launched a rare attack.
In the 30th minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Long clearance by Lee...
Following Akitoshi's long kick, the descending ball bounced off the head of Celtic's captain midfielder, Scott Brown, and went towards Victor. However, United's young defender slightly misjudged the trajectory of the ball, so Celtic had the striker Odsonne Édouard running behind him.
Clive Tyldesley: Off Scott Brown... Misjudged by Lindelöf! Édouard is going in...
As Édouard struck the ball, Chris managed to run back and block the shot. The ball deflected behind the byline for a Celtic corner kick.
Clive Tyldesley: It's blocked by Smalling. It is a corner.
Both teams moved into position for the corner kick. As it is current practice with many teams, United had their 2 smaller players standing each by either goalpost. Kakeru was guarding at one post while Nana was also holding her position at the opposite post.
"Watch the big guy! Watch the big 35!" Nana warned her teammates.
When the referee ordered the corner kick to proceed, Olivier Ntcham sent the ball in that "no-man's land" for his teammates.
Clive Tyldesley: Here comes the corner...
Beating the Manchester United defenders for height and timing in his jump, Danish defender Kristoffer Ajer powered a header towards the gap between David and Nana. Despite all of her good efforts, Nana's attempt to deflect the ball out with her head came too short. Celtic opened the score against all the odds.
Clive Tyldesley: IT'S AJER! Kristoffer Ajer gives Celtic the lead at Old Trafford!
While Celtic players were celebrating the goal, Nana was cursing at herself for not being able to keep that ball out of the net. However, Nana was also unhappy at the poor marking on Ajer.
"Come on! Who the hell was marking him?" Nana asked. "I told you to watch him."
"I screwed up on that one, Witch. I let him loose." Victor said.
"But that should not be your job! He's 6'5" for crying out loud!" Nana replied.
"I picked the wrong guy. He should have been mine, sorry." Chris said.
"C'mon, guys! It's not the time to point fingers." Romelu rallied his teammates.
"He's right! Let's grab the next one and the one after that." Kakeru added to the rally cry.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"Bloody hell! Smalling missed his defensive assignment again! That was his man to mark." Noriko said out loud.
"Sometimes I wonder if our defenders talk to each other. That was badly organized." Harry said.
"Same for me. The way it happened, Lindelöf was forced to go after him. The problem is that he was 3 inches smaller than the Celtic player." Robert replied.
"It came against the run of play, that goal." Sarah said.
"But, it's only one goal. Come on! Attack, attack! Attack, attack, attack!" Noriko shouted from her seat.
Almost as an immediate echo, the vast majority among the 75,000+ in the attendance shouted "UNITED! UNITED!" and "ATTACK, ATTACK! ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK!!" to galvanize their team. In response, United took control of the play again and got a glimpse of a break.
In the 36th minute:
Clive Tyldesley: The ball was played with a hand. Free kick for Manchester United…
After the referee called the foul against Celtic, Yusuke took the ball, and laid it down before he took the quick free kick with a long aerial pass forward.
Clive Tyldesley: Saeki takes it quickly… towards Martial.
The ball landed inside the penalty area. At the very same time, Anthony outpaced the Celtic defenders, and forced Akitoshi to try stopping the ball.
'Il va mordre à l'hameçon (He's going to take the bait).' Anthony thought.
At the right split second, Anthony poked the ball a little ahead of himself and out of Akitoshi's reach. Diving in too late, the South Korean goalkeeper brought United's French winger down when the former plunged his body in the way. Almost instantly, thousands of voices shouted in unison towards the referee.
Clive Tyldesley: Brought down by Lee! The referee's looking at it... PENALTY!
The thousands of Manchester United supporters cheered when the penalty was given. Meanwhile, Akitoshi was pleading his case at the referee as expected, but to no avail.
"What for, ref? He went down too easily." Akitoshi said.
"That was clear impeding on that, and you were nowhere near the ball. You're booked." the referee replied as he showed Akitoshi a yellow card.
At the same time, Anthony was congratulated by his teammates for earning the penalty.
"Great run." Yusuke said.
"Thank you, Yusuke."
With the regular penalty taker at the time, Paul Pogba, being on the bench, Anthony stepped up to take the penalty kick. For the Frenchman, it was an opportunity to regain his manager's trust with a goal.
Clive Tyldesley: Anthony Martial will take this penalty with the chance to put Manchester United back on terms.
The referee ordered the players from both sides to stand outside of the box. Only Anthony and Akitoshi stood in the penalty area. The Frenchman already placed his ball in position; he was only thinking about where he would hit the ball
'Come on, Anthony.' Kakeru and Nana thought at the same time.
Clive Tyldesley: Who will be the hero?
Given the signal by the referee, Anthony chose to perform his favorite kick in such situation: bottom corner and to the goalkeeper's right. However, the shot didn't muster maximum velocity on contact. As a result, the Celtic goalkeeper managed to dive towards the trajectory of the ball, and thus deflected the ball to the side with the fingertips of his glove.
Clive Tyldesley: LEE SAVES IT! Lukaku denied! Celtic are still in front 1-0.
Celtic's captain, Scott Brown, reached the rebound first, and kicked it to the side. Everyone supporting United in the stadium could only shake their heads in disbelief, especially Anthony. Once again, Akitoshi performed another miracle to keep his side in the lead.
"Bollocks!" Noriko exclaimed.
"That's not going to help on the kid's confidence." Harry said.
"I can't remember the last time a goalkeeper stole us so many times in one half of football." Sarah said.
"I know that things have not gone well for Martial for some time, but you have to give credit to the goalkeeper sometimes." Robert replied.
"Is there any way we can beat him?" Sarah asked.
"There is always a way." Noriko finished.
Only less than a minute following Akitoshi's save on the penalty kick, United pushed forward again. Following an interception, Celtic's defenders started the counterattack with a pass for Scott Brown, who then tried to pass towards the wing. However, that attempt of a pass was deflected by the backtracking Nana. As a result, Yusuke only had to collect the loose ball in the middle of the park.
Clive Tyldesley: Retrieved by Saeki... Pushed forward for Mishima.
Yusuke immediately flicked the ball for Nana. After the Little Witch ran a few yards ahead to get past a Celtic player, she looked for options. An opportunity suddenly appeared: while Kakeru was luring a central defender on one side with the run, Romelu went into the gaping hole in Celtic's defensive line. Without hesitation, Nana launched the through pass into Romelu's run.
Clive Tyldesley: It's a clever pass through! It's Lukaku!
Akitoshi ran forward to stop the ball, but Romelu arrived first in top speed, and struck a low shot. Somehow, the shot squeezed through the space between Akitoshi's midsection and left arm, and rolled into the back of the net. Old Trafford erupted following the 1-1 equalizing goal.
Clive Tyldesley: AHH! Romelu Lukaku has equalized for Manchester United! He squeezed the shot through Lee Chu-Joon. Still, it was a superb pass by Mishima to find Lukaku at first.
"GET IN! Bien joué, Rom! (Well played, Rom!)" Nana exclaimed in the middle of the celebrations on the pitch after the goal.
"Merci! C'était une très belle passe. (Thanks! That was a very beautiful pass.)" Romelu replied.
"Their keeper is beaten. Let's go for more now." Kakeru rallied his teammates to go back for the restart.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"Great killer pass, Nana!" Noriko shouted.
"Pinpoint accuracy." Sarah said.
"That's much better. Kakeru really lure the big Celtic defender out of position with the run." Robert said.
"Yeah, I know. It was a clever run by Kakeru." Noriko replied.
The final minutes of the first half winded down with only one half of a chance from Manchester United on the Celtic goal, but the score remained unchanged. Both teams retreated to their respective dressing rooms, but the Manchester United players were the only ones who didn't feel quite satisfied with the result after 45 minutes although they came from behind to put everyone on equal terms. It was important to win the first group match in the Champions League.
In the Manchester United dressing room:
"It's not the first half we all expected, but at least we pulled it back at 1-1. Here's the thing though: they will try to hit us on counterattacks and set pieces only. If you keep working harder than they do, they won't have such chances, and we will win the match. On the attack, be more aggressive, and be more creative. They have a good goalkeeper, but he is only human like all of us. Remember that for the second half." Andrew gave the team talk.
The Manchester United players replied with a round of applause altogether.
After that, a few players gathered with first-team coach Kieran McKenna to discuss about attacking tactics to use against Akitoshi's goal. Among them were Kakeru, Nana, and Romelu.
"I looked at their goalkeeper and the way he moves; he is very aggressive on the ball. We have to be both more aggressive and yet more creative in our plays." Mckenna said.
"He's on a yellow card. Do you think that might get into his head?" Romelu asked.
"I would be surprised if it does. Lee has always been a fighter, so he will dash in to block shots 'til the very end. If we want to beat him with better odds, we have to use his aggressive style to lure him out of position." Kakeru replied.
"Luring him out?" Romelu asked.
"That's good thinking. Big Rom scored against him head on, but we only scored once after missing so many direct chances. We need to be more efficient with our shots, but we can be creative. So we make the goalkeeper waste his energy by running from side to side when we pass across to a teammate inside the box." Nana replied.
"Exactly, Witch. Give the player with the ball one or more options for a pass across in the box. The goalkeeper won't be able to cover the whole width of the goal if we attack like that. We turn his aggressive ways against him. Let's go!" McKenna said.
"OK!" the players replied.
Following that little meeting, Kakeru and Nana had their own talk about the tactical changes.
"Where did that idea come from?" Nana asked.
"What Akitoshi-san did in the first half was quite reminiscent of what Mikiya Tono did in the Nationals against Enoshima in our first year. I guess that's the best way to deal with any goalkeeper who is a pain."
"It better work for us. I don't want to start this Champions League with anything less than a win." Nana said.
"Still, we need to be careful out there when pushing forward."
"You know I will, Kakeru. Meanwhile, make sure you're prepared to unleash the fury."
"Friend or not, I will give him no favors."
A few minutes later, the bell rang as a signal for the Manchester United players to come back on the pitch. Ahead of the second half, the players in red were resolute in breaking the human wall that was Lee Chu-Joon with the decisiveness that was necessary for United to earn the 3 points in the group table.
The second half of the match started very slowly as Celtic regrouped as a tight unit to stop United's attacks. Meanwhile, Celtic's attacks were quite timid as Yusuke and the 4 defenders had no trouble stopping them. With the score still tied at 1-1 in the 60th minute, Celtic's captain had ideas of his own on how to cripple United's creative force.
'If they think a girl will make us look like shite today, they are mistaken.' Scott Brown thought.
Following a Manchester United throw, Yusuke passed the ball towards Nana in the center of the pitch. The Little Witch ran past an opponent, but Scott Brown charged into Nana by the side, sweeping her legs in the process. Immediately, the vast majority of the 75,000+ in the attendance shouted as the referee blew his whistle to call the foul after Nana went down.
"KICK HIM OUT, REF!" Noriko shouted furiously.
"SEND THAT BASTARD OFF!" Sarah couldn't contain herself that time.
"HE'S A BLOODY MADMAN OUT THERE!" Robert added his voice in.
On the pitch, the incident gathered a crowd although the Celtic players came quickly to protect their captain from the angry Manchester United players, including Nana. The referee produced a yellow card against Celtic's captain, who smirked at the whole incident while the crowd voiced its displeasure.
"It looks like their captain has something against you." Kakeru said.
"If he comes in my area, he will taste his own medicine." Yusuke added.
"Don't worry about that now. If he wants a piece of me, I'll get him first. He has not seen what I can do just yet." Nana replied.
Clive Tyldesley: It's only a yellow card against Scott Brown for that last aggressive challenge. Meanwhile, Manchester United are about to make a substitution here.
On the touchline, Alexis was waiting for the 4th official to put the numbers on his board. When the ball went out of play a few moments later, the board displayed the numbers 11 in red and 7 in green: Alexis was going to replace Anthony.
Alan Keegan: Substitution for Manchester United: replacing number 11, Anthony Martial... number 7, Alexis Sánchez.
After the substitution, the match carried on. Meanwhile, Nana had one thing she wanted to do in the very short term: show Celtic's captain that she can play a very physical game of her own, and make the bully taste his own medicine. It only took 60 seconds before Nana and Scott Brown went at each other again.
Clive Tyldesley: Good recovery by Boyata... He finds Brown.
As Scott Brown made his run, Nana interposed herself between the ball and the Celtic captain. Lunging in with her right leg out and her right foot on the ground, Nana made contact with Scott Brown, and sent him crashing hard down on the pitch.
Clive Tyldesley: Foul by Mishima. It was a rash challenge... Is there more coming here?
Scott was a little in pain after an awkward landing. Nevertheless, he got up, and went after Nana. The Celtic captain had his blood boiling after Nana made him taste his own medicine with quite a hard tackle.
"Ye feartie (You coward)! Come here, let's go!" Scott Brown shouted while his teammates were holding him.
Nana kept her gaze frosty, and only replied with a blah-blah hand gesture, meaning he was a bore. She also had her own teammates standing in front of her as peacemakers.
Meanwhile, the referee came in to have a word with Nana.
"That was reckless of a challenge, Mishima. It's my last warning. No more of that, or you'll get a card next time." the referee said, making sure to wave his hands to mean a last verbal warning.
Then Nana walked away while the Manchester United supporters cheered at Nana for showing that she can hold her ground well enough to embarrass a player who is considered to be Celtic's toughest player by the Celtic connoisseurs.
"You caught him really hard, Seven." Kakeru said with a smile.
"Thanks. What goes around comes around." Nana replied.
"Sometimes, you are one hell of a scary person, Nana." Yusuke made the remark; he was perplexed by Nana's gutsy challenge against the Celtic captain.
"Against some players, it's the only way to impose your will upon them, especially British footballers." Kakeru said.
"If he comes near me again, I'll go even harder on him. I don't care about yellow cards if I can mess up with his head." Nana replied.
"Now, that's really scary." Kakeru and Yusuke said altogether.
After that incident, it took a few minutes for United to build up some momentum. However, the wait was about to be rewarded as the break came on a play that started as the beginning of a Celtic counterattack.
In the 67th minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Celtic on the counterattack. Tom Rogic is making the run...
As the Australian midfielder ran with the ball forward into United's half, Yusuke saw the opportunity, and came in with a strong standing tackle that took the ball away a split second before Rogic was sent flying to the ground. Despite protests from the Celtic players, the referee didn't call any foul, but rather allowed the play to continue.
Clive Tyldesley: Great tackle by Saeki on Rogic... Herrera's going forward.
"Ando!" Nana called for the ball.
"Witch!" Ander warned before he passed the ball straight towards the Little Witch.
Surprised by the speed of the counterattack, the Celtic players couldn't pull back into defensive positions. After she skipped past a tackle, Nana looked at her options, and then spotted Romelu making a run between Celtic's 2 central defenders.
Clive Tyldesley: Mishima sees the space... Lukaku is in.
With the Celtic goal well in sight at that very second, Romelu took a hard shot on goal. The shot was stopped by Akitoshi on the edge of his 6-yard box, but the rebound bounced back towards the Belgian.
Looking for the source of the shout, Romelu spotted a red shirt, and tapped the ball across in that direction. The player Romelu found at the end of the pass was the very one that Celtic really didn't want to see hitting a shot within 6-10 yards from goal.
Clive Tyldesley: Great save by Lee! Lukaku's there again... AIZAWA!
Despite Akitoshi's desperate diving effort, Kakeru smashed the ball into the goal and sent Old Trafford wild following the goal that gave United the 2-1 lead.
Clive Tyldesley: IT'S 2-1! Kakeru Aizawa scores his first goal in this Champions League campaign for Manchester United! They lead with 23 minutes to go.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"YEAH, KAKERU! WELL DONE!" Noriko shouted.
"Well played! 'Ave it!" Sarah added.
Kakeru ran towards the corner flag to celebrate his goal before he was joined by his teammates, especially Nana arriving first to jump into Kakeru's greeting arms for a tight celebratory hug.
"You did it, Kakeru!" Nana said.
"Good instinct by getting there, Knight!" Romelu said.
"Thanks. That was a nice pass too." Kakeru replied.
After a few celebrations, the Manchester United players ran back into restarting positions. Meanwhile, Scott Brown was not happy with the chain of events that started with the strong tackle from Yusuke on Tom Rogic. The Celtic captain gave a mouthful to the referee.
"Why the hell was that not a foul? That should have been a free kick for us!" Scott Brown complained.
"He got the ball cleanly there." the referee replied before he brushed the Celtic captain away.
"Yeah, that's a typical homer decision. Thank you very much." Scott Brown added a touch of sarcasm as he went after the referee.
"You better tone it down now. Remember that you're already booked." the referee gave his last warning to Celtic's captain, who had to be calmed down, and pulled away by his teammates. The last thing Celtic wanted was to fall down to 10 men because of one silly yellow card too many.
Celtic's manager felt his team needed some new energy in the side. As a result, Leigh Griffiths and Scott Sinclair replaced Odsonne Édouard and Tom Rogic. With those changes, Callum McGregor moved behind the striker while Sinclair would patrol the left wing. Scottish international Leigh Griffiths was the replacement striker for the men in hoops. A little later, Andrew replaced Ander with Pog to keep the Celtic players on their heels for the rest of the match.
In the 73rd minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Manchester United are pushing forward through Pogba... finds Aizawa.
Using his faithful Run-With-The-Ball technique, Kakeru skipped his way past Kieran Tierney as if he was nothing. By the time he entered the last third of the pitch, Kakeru only had 2 defenders standing in the way to goal.
Clive Tyldesley: He's gone past Tierney. He's taking on Ajer...
Kakeru waited the perfect moment as the Norwegian defender Kristoffer Ajer committed himself into making a tackle. To avoid the tackle, Kakeru faked going left before he pushed forward to the right. Kakeru then continued his run inside the penalty area with Ajer desperately trying to regain some ground.
"Knight!" Romelu shouted as he continued his run towards the far post.
Without waiting any further, Kakeru lopped the chip pass across the box towards the far post. In that area, Romelu jumped above the nearest Celtic defender – Dedryck Boyata, and made a clean contact with the ball. As the header shot appeared to fly into the goal for sure, Akitoshi jumped into the way with one hand on the ball.
Clive Tyldesley: Terrific save by Lee on Lukaku... Oh, as far as Aizawa...
The previous one-handed save by Akitoshi was not well controlled as the ball bounced off a Celtic defender and back into the danger area where Kakeru was lurking. The Japanese striker opted for a low shot, but Akitoshi managed to just get enough of a touch of the ball before it rattled the post.
Clive Tyldesley: Off the post! Brilliant save by Lee on Aizawa! The South Korean saves Celtic again!
Then one of Celtic defenders cleared the ball far and away for a throw-in. Kakeru could only clench his teeth in disappointment at the double scoring chance that was missed.
"That was almost perfect. Man, he's a beast." Pog said.
"Yeah, but let's not stop at all." Kakeru replied.
Antonio took the throw-in towards Kakeru, who then came up facing Kieran Tierney again. The Japanese forward felt it was time to try something a little more audacious.
'Let's try a Phi Trick right here.' Kakeru thought.
With a skilled and well-timed effort, Kakeru baffled Kieran Tierney completely with the Phi Trick. In a flash, Kakeru was running into open space on the way towards the Celtic penalty area.
Clive Tyldesley: Aizawa gets past Tierney! He's looking around...
The Japanese forward dashed in towards the edge of the box when he suddenly made pass towards an open area 25 yards from goal. In that position, Yusuke dashed in with only one thing in mind.
Clive Tyldesley: Aizawa finds Saeki... Saeki has a shot!
Following Yusuke's left-footed shot, the ball took a swirl towards the left that surprised Akitoshi completely. Although Akitoshi jumped in, his reach was nowhere near touching the ball. However, the ball struck the outside of the post and out.
Clive Tyldesley: Off the post and out! Celtic just got lucky. Lee was surely beaten by the swirl on Saeki's effort, but not the post.
"That's just my luck." Yusuke said after letting out a sigh.
"Akitoshi-san has made so many huge efforts to keep the score tight, but I'm sure we are wearing him down." Kakeru replied.
Indeed as Kakeru noticed, Akitoshi was starting to feel the effects of physical and mental fatigue following the bombardment the latter sustained from the Red Devils in the match. Nevertheless, there was always the possibility that one stroke of good luck in favor of Celtic could change the match.
In the 78th minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Olivier Ntcham will take this corner kick.
Celtic had a corner kick. Ntcham whipped the ball towards the near post, but the ball was cleared away by Chris before it could connect with Mikael Lustig. However, the ball went back in play for Ntcham.
Clive Tyldesley: Good ball in! It almost reached Lustig...
Ntcham took his second chance to send a good ball towards the front of the goal, but the ball was cleared by Pog. The ball went looping a dozen yards outside of the Manchester United penalty area. However, James Forrest chested the ball down before he unleashed a rocket of a shot on the volley, much to everyone's surprise.
Clive Tyldesley: Cleared... only as far as FORREST!!!
The ball flew like an arrow towards the frame of the goal. Fortunately for United though, the ball struck the top of the crossbar and bounced out of bounds.
Clive Tyldesley: It bounces off the top of the crossbar. A let-off for Manchester United.
"That was dangerously close." Kakeru said.
"I also thought that was in." Nana added.
"We better keep our focus with the time left to play. They will keep on coming." Yusuke replied.
"Let's finish this thing off." Kakeru finished.
Celtic were unlucky on James Forrest's effort, but the team from Glasgow was still desperately attempting to equalize on the scoreline. On the other hand, United were still working to hold onto the slender lead. The difference between the 2 sides was in a matter of details and inches.
In the 85th minute:
Clive Tyldesley: James Forrest's pushing the ball forward for Lustig...
As Forrest saw his teammate Lustig running on the overlap, the Scotsman made a pass into the Swede's path. Luke tried to keep up the pace with Lustig before the Swede attempted a long cross towards the far post. However, the ball found no one in a dangerous position.
Clive Tyldesley: Too far away for Griffiths... now comes Tierney.
Kieran Tierney retrieved the loose ball on the opposite wing, but had to deal with Kakeru in front of him.
"Come on. Try me." Kakeru challenged Tierney.
Instead of trying to beat Kakeru in a 1v1 duel, Tierney chose to make a drop pass towards Olivier Ntcham. The Frenchman then attempted a long cross towards a teammate, but the ball flew towards the edge of the Manchester United penalty area, on the opposite wing where Mikael Lustig stood.
Clive Tyldesley: Ntcham missed his pass, but Lustig could send it back in.
Lustig came up against Antonio. After a split second, Lustig attempted to slide the ball through Antonio's legs for another Celtic player. Fortunately for United, the ball was kicked away by Victor.
Clive Tyldesley: Lindelöf clears it away…
The ball flew outside the penalty area. The big Frenchman Paul Pogba and the Celtic captain Scott Brown both attempted to reach the ball in the air. In the end, Pog got to the ball first while Scott Brown collapsed on the floor following the coming together. The Celtic players protested, but the referee did not stop the play. As a result, Pog was dashing with the ball well across the halfway line on the counterattack.
Clive Tyldesley: Brown is down, but the referee says "play on". Pogba...
"COME ON! Counterattack!" Noriko shouted.
"Let's finish them here!" Robert also exclaimed.
Anticipating the long-awaited third goal that could kill the match off, the Old Trafford crowd was roaring louder and louder as they saw 5 Manchester United players charging towards the Stretford End on the counterattack.
Clive Tyldesley: He has space in front of him. Aizawa is on his right...
Keeping 2 Celtic defenders busy already, Romelu was already ahead of Pog. The French midfielder in red passed the ball ahead to Romelu, who then took a couple of steps to his right.
"Give me!" Kakeru called for a pass on the right wing.
Clive Tyldesley: Lukaku sets up Aizawa here...
"I won't let you score, Kakeru! This won't end here!" Akitoshi said.
A split second before Kakeru received the pass from Romelu, the Japanese forward saw that Akitoshi was standing on his heels. The Celtic goalkeeper was solely focused on the immediate danger that Kakeru was. Kieran Tierney and Kristoffer Ajer also tried to catch up with Kakeru from behind, but Kakeru already made his mind up on his next move.
'All yours, Seven!' Kakeru thought.
Kakeru then made a quick lateral pass towards an open space on his left. Arriving quickly in that area was Nana, who got herself free from the closest Celtic player.
Clive Tyldesley: ...squares it for...
'I'm having that, Kakeru.' Nana thought.
"No way!" Akitoshi realized the danger.
Akitoshi desperately tried to run towards where Nana was arriving. But with the goal gaping wide open as it was, Nana struck the ball into the goal and beyond Akitoshi's reach. In a flash, Old Trafford went into frenzy again.
Clive Tyldesley: MISHIMAAA!!! Nana Mishima has finished it off! It's 3-1 for Manchester United! Massive relief at Old Trafford. You have to feel it's well and truly game over!
"Great ball, Kakeru!" Nana said as she celebrated the goal by pointing towards Kakeru to acknowledge the quality of the pass.
"I knew you would get there, Seven! You did it!" Kakeru replied as he took the jumping Nana into his arms.
Only seconds later, the rest of the Manchester United players joined in to celebrate the goal that took a ton of pressure off their shoulders. With a 2-goal gap in their favor with so little time left, everyone knew it would be almost impossible for Celtic to make a comeback.
"Great job, Pog! Merci!" Nana thanked the teammate who kicked off the counterattack.
"Thanks. Great goal, Witch!"
"That was great stuff, you two." Yusuke said.
"Luring him out to turn his aggressive style against him by using the width, that's what we all said." Kakeru replied.
At the very same time that the Manchester United players were celebrating the goal, the Celtic manager was fuming at the 4th official. He felt that Scott Brown was fouled by Pog right before the counterattack started. Scott Brown also protested to the referee, but to no avail. TV replays showed that Scott Brown slipped after he and Pog went for the same ball. Celtic conceded the goal because they committed too many men forward while the Manchester United attackers showed good awareness and composure on the counterattack.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"Great teamwork goal! Well done, Nana! Well done, Kakeru!" Noriko shouted to congratulate both Kakeru and Nana, who responded by waving back at her.
"You played great! Great composure!" Sarah added.
"I have been watching these two playing together for a few years now, but they never stop to amaze me when they need to be on the same wavelength." Robert said.
"Better than any duo you have seen over the years?" Sayuri asked her husband.
"I'm not sure, but they are close." Robert replied.
Shortly after the 85th minute, Andrew made his last substitution by replacing Yusuke with Andreas Pereira. On the way off the pitch, the Japanese defensive midfielder was warmly applauded by the supporters for his Champions League debut. From there, the remaining minutes of normal time and injury time went down without any further incident. The Manchester United players worked on just defending their lead without doing anything reckless. On the other hand, Celtic were totally demoralized after United's 3rd goal. After 3 minutes of injury time, the final whistle was blown.
PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEP!!!
Clive Tyldesley: Manchester United have started this Champions League campaign on the right foot, but they had to come back from behind. They had to score 3 unanswered goals against the very persistent Lee Chu-Joon to win it. The final score at Old Trafford: Manchester United 3-1 Celtic.
In the post-game handshakes, Nana and Scott Brown only shook hands very briefly. The Celtic captain was still not happy at the fact that a woman embarrassed him in the toughness department. Nevertheless, the point of interest was the handshakes between United's 3 Japanese players and the Celtic goalkeeper.
"Great game, Kakeru. I see how good you have become now." Akitoshi said.
"Thanks. You gave us quite a lot of trouble tonight."
"I did what I could, but you two outsmarted me. I will have to be a lot better in the return match between us in November, in Glasgow, but you better be ready for the noise there." Akitoshi said.
"We will be up to the challenge at Celtic Park." Nana replied.
"I expect it." Akitoshi said as he shook hands with Nana.
"Good game, Lee-san. I guess I'm the only one among the three of us who has yet to score against you." Yusuke said.
"Try me anytime, but I'm not making you gifts. By the way, congratulations for your first start at United; I look forward to see you play in Glasgow too." Akitoshi replied.
"I will be there." Yusuke finished.
After Celtic's South Korean goalkeeper parted ways with Kakeru and his friends, the 3 Japanese players saluted the celebrating supporters inside Old Trafford before they left the pitch. While most professional footballers would take the day off after a match, even on weekdays, Kakeru and Nana's following day would be quite different from a typical post-match day. It was a matter of knowledge, wisdom, and humanity.