Chapter 10: Manchester Derby - First Half
Sunday May 19, 201X
2:55 PM BST (10:55 PM Japan time)
Anxiously waiting in the tunnel leading to the pitch, all players from both teams were trying to remain focused before the match. Just to illustrate the extent of the tension in the air surrounding the match, not even a single player dared saying anything to a rival from the other team; only one handshake was given between rival goalkeepers for sportsmanship in that tunnel.
Finally, the referee gave the signal and both teams walked down the tunnel side by side before they arrived on the pitch where the battle would take for the next 90 minutes of play. Walking out as the usual entrance tune, Bill Conti's well-known Fanfare for Rocky, was played throughout the stadium, the Manchester United starting XI players were greeted by a cauldron of noise coming from the vast majority out of almost 76,000 fans packing the stadium to the rafters. At the same time, the commentary team of Martin Tyler and former Manchester United defender Gary Neville started their commentary job from their position in the middle of the Upper South Stand.
Martin Tyler: When the schedule first came out in last June, there were talks about this game being a possible title decider if things went down to the wire. So here we are. Manchester United scraped through with that win over West Bromwich Albion on the day after Manchester City lost to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup final, but it might still be no more than a faint hope at the end of the day. City are currently holding over United a 3-point advantage, a better goal difference by 2 and a better total production in case the goal difference ends up equal should United win today by a one-goal margin. To make it worse, there is a makeshift look to the Manchester United lineup with all their injuries. Two of their substitutes, Kakeru Aizawa and Nana Mishima, are completely unknown quantities.
Gary Neville: They surely are, yes. Apparently, both were given a tryout by Sir Alex himself back in March after they finished high school in Japan. Kakeru Aizawa played high school football for the last 3 years as well as for Japan with the U-21s at international level over the last 2 years. On her own end, Nana Mishima currently plays for the Japanese Women's National Team, but she apparently never played competitive football for any club in high school.
Martin Tyler: Well, both of them have been turning some heads with their performances in the Reserves, but this is a much much higher level. I just wonder how they will cope if they do get the nod today. Worthy to mention is that United managed to put on hold all actions from FIFA attempting to ban Ms. Mishima from playing against men. Therefore, she is eligible to play today.
Down on the pitch, the starting players of both teams gave the traditional pre-game handshake just before all broadcasts displayed the starting lineups.
Martin Tyler: For United, PFA goalkeeper of the year David de Gea (#1) has the task of stopping City's attacks once again. In front of him, Rafael (#2) returns at right back after serving a ban; he’s supported by Rio Ferdinand (#5), Nemanja Vidic (#15) and Patrice Evra (#3). In midfield, Antonio Valencia (#7), Michael Carrick (#16), Tom Cleverley (#23) and Shinji Kagawa (#26) get the nod. Wayne Rooney (#10) and Robin van Persie (#20) have the massive task of spearheading Manchester United's attack today.
As expected, City players were greeted with boos during the lineup presentation by the stadium's public address announcer, Alan Keegan, at the same time as the broadcast. As expected, Ricky received a very loud share of boos when his name was announced through the speakers.
Martin Tyler: Joe Hart (#1) starts in goal for City despite the FA Cup defeat from 8 days ago. In defense, Pablo Zabaleta (#5), Vincent Kompany (#4), Matija Nastasic (#33) and Ricardo Vernardi (#15) are in the side today. James Milner (#7), Yaya Touré (#42), Gareth Barry (#18) and David Silva (#21) play in midfield. Carlos Tévez (#32) and Sergio Agüero (#16) will lead up front.
As displayed on the TV broadcasts, United's substitutes were Anders Lindegaard (#13), Jonny Evans (#6), Alexander Büttner (#28), Ryan Giggs (#11), Nana (#32), Kakeru (#9) and Danny Welbeck (#19). Meanwhile, Costel Pantilimon (#30), Joleon Lescott (#6), Aleksandar Kolarov (#13), Gaël Clichy (#22), Samir Nasri (#8), Javi Garcia (#14) and Edin Dzeko (#10) started on the bench for City.
On their way towards the home dugout which provided an elevated view of the game, Kakeru and Nana signed a few autographs before they reached their seats. After the coin toss by the referee, Manchester United elected to kick things off and it was also convened they'd attack towards the East Stand for the first half.
In the last few seconds before kickoff at 3:00 PM, the tens of thousands of United supporters made a thunderous roar in full voice as Wayne and Robin were set. Finally, upon the referee's whistle, the drama began.
Within the first 15 seconds, the players in red pushed forward with a first rush on the right and deep in City's territory with Antonio trying to pass towards Wayne in the overlap. However, the pass went too far ahead and Rooney then fouled Natija as the latter was pushed to the ground while shielding the ball with his body.
Martin Tyler: Oh, things are already getting physical down there from the start. United's game plan is quite simple: grind it out for every ball.
On the following play, Joe Hart's free kick flew forward only to be headed down by Nemanja in front of City striker Sergio Agüero. The ball was taken by Michael who then passed to the left towards Shinji. The Japanese midfielder spotted a red striker running forward between 2 City defenders on the right side of the field.
Martin Tyler: Kagawa... It's a great ball... Van Persie got himself between Vernardi and Nastasic.
After receiving the long ball from Shinji, Robin was dashing with Ricky trying to catch him from behind while Matija tried to block the middle. When Robin reached the edge of the box, he suddenly stopped in his tracks and Matija was caught off guard. In a split second, the Dutch red striker spotted a red shirt on his left and made a pass towards the path of that player. That red shirt was English striker Wayne Rooney, who got away from Vincent's marking for a split second and got himself onside in a solo run towards the goalkeeper
Martin Tyler: Rooney is coming through the middle... Straight away!
With just a tap-in of the left foot, Wayne's shot rolled past the fingers of the diving City goalkeeper and struck the back of the net. In an instant, the stadium erupted into a deafening roar as first blood was drawn by Manchester United early on with the very important 1-0 goal.
Martin Tyler: It's a dream start for Manchester United! They are going berserk at Old Trafford only 40 seconds into the game.
On United's bench, Kakeru and Nana quickly jumped off their seats celebrating after the goal. High fives were given between all substitutes on the bench and some also hugged the long-serving equipment manager in the midst of the celebrations.
"Amazing goal, Wazza!" Kakeru shouted.
"Great passes, Kagawa-senpai and Robin!" Nana added to the praises from the bench.
Meanwhile in the stands, Noriko, Taeko, Mito, Mai and the parents were jubilating after that early goal when the entire crowd was already pumped up to the maximum since the players arrived on the pitch a few minutes earlier.
"This is unbelievable! It's even better than a final at the National Olympic Stadium in Tokyo!" Mito told Mai with a loud voice trying to get through the wall of noise.
"I know! I can't even hear myself." Mai replied.
"This is only the beginning. We need to take the momentum now." Noriko told Mai before she shouted the next taunt aimed at City along with thousands of supporters putting their voices into it: "WHO ARE YA!? WHO ARE YA!? WHO ARE YA!?"
In Yokohama, all the viewers who were sitting in the pub, including the Enoshima High alumni and Kakeru's other friends, were also celebrating the goal only a few seconds later because of the delay with the television feed. The cheers were loud despite the fact that it was just over midnight in Japan. At the same time, one of Coach Iwaki's long-time friends unexpectedly arrived in the pub: it was Jouji Uryuu, Tsujido Academy's current coach and formerly a co-founder of Enoshima FC along with Coach Iwaki.
"Hey, Teppei!" Jouji called.
"Uryuu... What are you doing here?" Coach Iwaki asked.
"I reserved a spot for myself at the bar when I heard from a friend that a number of former Enoshima students would gather here. Judging from the noise I heard outside when I was about to come in, it sounded like it was good. So who scored, Teppei?" Jouji said.
"Rooney just opened the score after 40 seconds for Manchester United."
"Nice. Is Aizawa on the bench as some media suggested?" Jouji asked.
"He's on the bench. Mishima-san is also on the bench." Ayaka replied to her old friend from high school.
"We'll see if he can add his own bit of fire later now that the fuse has been lit early on." Jouji finished.
For the following 15 minutes, Manchester United launched several attacks towards the City goal. However, City managed to tighten up defensively and prevent dangerous balls from coming close to goal until then.
In the 17th minute, City's back 4 were passing the ball between each other before passing back to their goalkeeper under the pressure of the 2 Manchester United strikers. However when Joe tried to kick it down the field, he made a mistake as Robin threw himself in front of the shot with an improvised block and the ball then bounced back towards the goal.
Martin Tyler: Oh, Joe Hart! He's kicked it against Van Persie...
"C'mon! Get in!" Kakeru and Nana exclaimed as everyone on the bench watched anxiously the ball rolling towards the goal.
The crowd roared in anticipation before the noise changed into a massive moan of disappointment as the ball bounced onto the left post and back safely into Joe's hands.
Martin Tyler: It bounced off Van Persie onto the post... And that crazy moment could have settled the championship. But it didn't.
Gary Neville: I think Joe Hart thought it was going in, Martin. It should have been a goal with the spin of that ball, but Joe Hart was saved by his left post just now. Massive break for Manchester City there.
At that moment, all Manchester United fans watching the game from anywhere in the world had their hands on top of their heads in disbelief after they all saw how the last chance went just short of giving the team in red the 2-goal lead they were desperately looking for.
"Aaahh, it's such a shame!" Mito shouted in despair.
"As long as we keep the pressure on them, things should be going in the right direction." Noriko replied.
"I agree: the best defense in this case is to keep attacking." Mai added.
"Still, United have to watch out for counterattacks from City. One bad break and we could be in trouble." Robert said.
Later in the 25th minute, another chance presented itself as United launched a counterattack from the left flank with Wayne charging in with only Pablo as an obstacle as both players made a run for the ball. Both players went into contact with their shoulders while they were fighting for the ball, but Wayne proved to be stronger this time as he shoved Pablo out of contention legally at the edge of the box, thus creating an opening and drawing another encouraging roar from the crowd.
Martin Tyler: Rooney, he's in here…
While City's captain Vincent moved from his centre-back position trying to cut in front of Wayne's run, the latter looked to his right and spotted Shinji at the edge of the box in the middle before sending the pass towards the Japanese midfielder.
Martin Tyler: Here comes Kagawa...
Shinji quickly took the shot before it was partially blocked by City's other central defender Matija. However, the ball looped over the City goalkeeper and was diving down towards the goal... before a player in blue saved the goal.
Martin Tyler: The ball bounces over Joe Hart, but Vernardi saves it off the line!
Gary Neville: What a great play by Vernardi! He had the presence of mind to move on the goal line and he just saved a sure goal. How massive this play will prove to be at the end of the day remains to be seen.
Indeed, Ricky jumped in front of goal and kicked the ball away before it could cross the goal line. Again, it was another miss adding to the frustration of all Manchester United fans, but a huge moment of relief for Manchester City players and fans alike. Everything looked perfect on the play with Wayne pushing Pablo aside of the play as well as the back pass towards Shinji... before the shot was stopped by the last man available to save the day for City.
Meanwhile in Yokohama, it was the same feeling of disbelief that hit the Enoshima High alumni and Kakeru's friends when Ricky cleared the ball.
"What does it take to cross the line?" Momoko asked.
"This is so frustrating." Ayaka added.
"Rooney neutralized the right-back as if he was nothing. However, I'm surprised they are not pushing more on Vernardi's side." Koichi Hibino remarked.
"So far, City have been quite lucky to keep it down at 1-0. But on the other hand, the growing frustration for the team in red could become a problem if this goes on." Araki said.
"Indeed, Araki-kun. If City are beginning to have a better control of the ball, they could take advantage of the first lapse in concentration shown by the other side because of that frustration." Coach Iwaki added.
"We don't have much choice but hope this doesn’t happen soon." Ryoma said.
Unfortunately for Ryoma, what Araki and Coach Iwaki feared began to materialize itself just a few minutes later. In the 29th minute, Antonio tried to attack from the right flank, but Ricky managed to steal the ball after he anticipated Antonio's run. Ricky then passed the ball forward to Gareth in midfield, but Wayne pushed City's English midfielder to the ground in an attempt to win the ball. The referee blew his whistle, much to the disappointment of all United supporters.
Martin Tyler: The referee has given the foul. Free kick given...
As the ball was placed for a free kick in City's territory, Ricky saw an opportunity took made a quick pass towards the dashing Spanish left winger David Silva. At that precise moment, United's defense was surprised by Silva's sudden burst of speed and they quickly tried to fall back towards their goal.
Martin Tyler: They've taken it quickly… It’s David Silva dashing with an injection of pace... Support's coming for him: Tévez is in the middle...
David Silva spotted Carlos in the middle and sent the cross in mid-air for the latter to make a diving header. The headed shot seemed to be going for the bottom corner of the goal, but United's keeper De Gea made a diving save to parry the shot safely to the side before one of his teammates recovered the ball.
Martin Tyler: And it would have been a wonderful header goal but for David de Gea getting down low.
Gary Neville: Oh, what a save by De Gea! I'll tell you what: that shot was heading for the bottom corner. But it all started on the counter following a free kick that was taken quickly and they found the gap in the defense; that’s where City can be dangerous.
Reenergized by that last counterattack, City controlled the ball a little better and spent more time in United's half in the following few minutes. In the 32nd minute, Wayne made a pass to the right towards Antonio to launch a counterattack. However, Antonio faced Ricky in front of him and was stripped off the ball at the same time he lost his balance. Ricky then dashed from the center line with the ball and deep in United's territory.
Martin Tyler: He stumbles into Vernardi, who takes it on impressively...
Then Ricky spotted his fellow countryman Sergio in the middle. At the very same time, Carlos was making a run behind Rio while Nemanja was standing as an obstacle in front of Sergio. Instead of passing the ball into Carlos' run, Sergio took the curling shot that flew 25 yards towards the top corner of the goal. However, United's goalkeeper De Gea managed to catch the ball with both hands before the ball could reach the right top corner.
Martin Tyler: Good stop by the Spanish goalkeeper!
Gary Neville: Well, Agüero had the option to pass it into Tévez, but decided to take matters on himself. That ball was heading towards the top corner; great effort.
Around the 34th minute, Antonio tried taking on Ricky again. However, United's Ecuadorian winger stopped in his tracks when he faced the Argentine defender. By the time Antonio tried running again after making his stop, Ricky kicked the ball off Antonio's feet and out for a throw. Over the course of the game so far, Antonio had not been able to outrun the Argentine left-back nor make accurate crosses into the danger zone for a teammate. As a result, either Antonio lost the ball or made a pass that led to no scoring opportunity for a teammate. That recurrent pattern was of course noticed by Kakeru, Nana and Ryan as they watched the action from the home dugout.
"I'm looking at Antonio; he has lost the ball a number of times in the last few minutes. He’s also not using his full pace to try outrunning Vernardi and create something." Kakeru said.
"Yes, you're right. It has been an ongoing problem for him this season; he's had a big lack of confidence in his abilities unlike in previous seasons." veteran Welsh winger Ryan concurred.
"What's even more of a problem is how Antonio is not using his left foot often and the crosses he attempts with his right foot have a hard time finding the intended targets. Hence, he's already on a handicap against a defender as skilled as Vernardi." Nana said.
"That's exactly like how I used to be in middle school: by taking one more step to use his right foot instead of using the left, he gives Vernardi and the other City players the time they need to adjust themselves. I never thought there would be one-footed players at such a high level in professional football." Kakeru added.
"Unfortunately, it's a reality that also exists in professional football when you're not trained to use both feet as much as you'd like from a young age." Ryan replied.
'Good thing I spent all those nights with Seven training my left leg to be as good as my right.' Kakeru thought.
In front of an increasingly worrying situation, Sir Alex decided it was time for a few substitutes to get warmed up just in case. "Jonny, Kakeru and Nana, go down on the touchline and get ready." Sir Alex ordered.
Immediately responding to the Boss' order, the 3 substitutes put on their yellow bibs before they began their stretching exercises on the side of the playing field.
Martin Tyler: Well, I wonder if Sir Alex Ferguson is playing mind games. Still, it could get interesting with Nana Mishima now warming up on the touchline.
Gary Neville: Hard to tell what Sir Alex wants, but I'd take this occasion to remind the people watching at home that Nana Mishima would make history if she gets the nod at some point today.
Up until the 42nd minute, the confrontation between the 2 teams was a stalemate where no clear chances were created by either team. However, Wayne lost the ball in an attempt to get past Gareth in the attacking zone. From there, the ball was retrieved by City before they launched their counterattack. After they established themselves in United's territory, City's right winger James controlled the ball from the right wing before he passed it back to Pablo, who then passed towards David Silva on his left. As the last receiver looked around, he spotted his teammate Ricky as he escaped from Rafael's marking for a split second. Without any hesitation, the Spaniard unleashed the long ball right into Ricky's path.
Martin Tyler: Oh, Vernardi has got a lot of pace. He uses to great effect...
Dashing towards the inside of the box, Ricky saw Rio and Nemanja trying to pull back. At the same time, a sky blue shirt appeared in Ricky's field of vision. It was his fellow countryman and City's striker Sergio making a run in the middle; Sergio managed to get away from Rio's marking at the right time as Ricky made the low cross inside the box for him.
Martin Tyler: It's Agüero!
In a matter of a fraction of a second, the shot from the Argentine striker's left foot found the back of the net and the last action created the first setback in Manchester United's plans. At that instant, the only noise that was heard came from the 3,000 City supporters in the Southeast corner of the stadium while all the Manchester United supporters were left in shock.
Martin Tyler: City are level; it's 1-1.
Meanwhile in Yokohama, everyone just saw City's goal. The reaction in the place was filled with several moans of massive disappointment and even despair for some.
"Oh, no!" Yusuke exclaimed.
"Damn! C’mon man!" Kouta added as he had his hands on his head in disbelief.
"Those missed opportunities are now haunting them." Ryoma said.
"It's exactly as you said earlier, Iwaki-sensei." Araki said.
"All it took for Vernardi was just one split-second to get out of the right-back's watch and then he took full advantage of it. That's how competitive soccer is in Europe." Coach Iwaki replied.
"The question now is how Manchester United will react with less than 3 minutes before halftime." Araki said.
"They lost their edge since the 30th minute mark and it's taking a toll on them mentally. The best they can do now is to keep the ball with a better control and as far as possible from their territory until the halftime whistle." Ayaka remarked.
"What if they can't, Mine-sensei?" Araki asked.
"Then we should all start praying against such a dangerous team." Ayaka replied.
Back to Manchester, United tried their best to control the ball before halftime. After City recovered the ball at the 45th minute, Gareth made a pass forward intended for Carlos. However, Rio read the play well and intercepted the ball before passing towards Antonio on the right wing. When Antonio tried to control the last pass, Ricky ran in with a challenge that saw Antonio tripped upon a knee-to-knee impact and the ball bouncing towards City's Ivorian midfielder Yaya. As the challenge happened in front of the home dugout, all of United's players, substitutes and coaches alike shouted at the referee for a foul.
"Hey! Did you see that, ref?" Kakeru shouted with his arms raised as the incident happened just a few yards away from the area where he was still warming up.
"C'mon, referee! Player down!" Nana added to the protests.
Martin Tyler: Valencia is down... City playing on...
The referee did not blow his whistle and let the game continue instead. On City's counterattack, Sergio quickly dashed forward with the ball before he stopped looking for options. The younger Argentine striker then passed to Ricky on the left, but United's right-back Rafael was there to prevent any attempt to cut inside the box unlike the previous time. Without an option to make a pass, Ricky kicked the ball off Rafael's leg and out of bounds behind for a corner kick.
With the play stopped, Nemanja, Rio, Wayne and several other United players on the pitch asked the referee for an explanation on the last non-call. Meanwhile, Sir Alex blasted the 4th official, who tried his best to calm things down on the touchline. Antonio then tried to stand again on both legs, but to no avail as he couldn't put any weight on his left leg. As the incident happened very close to the touchline where United's substitutes were warming up, Kakeru and Nana quickly helped a limping Antonio to move out of the playing surface before the injured winger was examined by the team's chief physiotherapist.
"How did the referee miss that hit? That was dangerous! The knee ligaments could be damaged for all we know." Kakeru asked Nana
"He must think the challenge was 50-50. It was very close although I would have given the foul because it's a contact with the knee." Nana replied.
"I hope that's not the case, but things look bad for Antonio's left knee." Kakeru said.
Martin Tyler: The Manchester United players are absolutely furious. Let's see again what happened, Gary.
Gary Neville: It's not the first time Antonio Valencia and Ricardo Vernardi went against each other today... Vernardi caught Valencia when both left knees collided, but it looks like he got the ball at the very same time before it bounced off Valencia and towards Yaya Touré. Let's see it from another angle... Oh, that was very close. The referee could have gone either way with his decision and he decided to let it play on.
Martin Tyler: Most important fact is that United are now down to 10 men and it's a corner for Manchester City. It could well be the last kick of the first half as we are now in stoppage time when there was originally none given.
Carlos took the ball towards the corner flag under boos from the fans in the nearby West Stand, also known as the Stretford End. Once all players were set, the referee gave the signal for Carlos to take the corner kick. As the ball flew towards the middle of the pack of players, United's tallest players were already marking City's taller players. However, Antonio's loss also meant that one man wasn't covered. In no time, the unmarked Ricky ran and jumped towards the aerial ball.
Martin Tyler: A free header!
Time seemed frozen for a split second as Kakeru and Nana, both standing on the touchline, saw the next action unfolding: Ricky deflected the corner kick with a powerful header that sent the ball out of De Gea’s reach and straight into the goal in front of the Stretford End. In a matter of just a few minutes before halftime, Manchester City turned things around and took a 2-1 lead. On Manchester United's side of things, it certainly was the worst case scenario for them at that point in the match.