Return to Glasgow
After a successful time on international duty against both England and Scotland, Kakeru and Yusuke returned to club duties with Manchester United. However, the first Premier League match after the international break proved to be difficult as United were only able to earn a 1-1 draw in Wales against newly promoted Cardiff City (November 24). The following match was set to be a return in Glasgow for the 3 Japanese players as United had to play an away match against Celtic in the 5th group match in the UEFA Champions League.
Thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Akitoshi Li (a.k.a. Lee Chu-Joon), Celtic won 3 group matches out of 4 in the Champions League, and only lost the first group match against United back in September. The top of the group was at stake as United only needed a draw to secure the position. Even if the Red Devils (currently at 12 points in 4 matches) were to lose their last group match against Ajax Amsterdam later in early December, a draw against Celtic (currently at 9 points in 4 matches) would maintain the tiebreak advantage due to the higher number of points earned through direct confrontations between United and Celtic.
The table was set for another thrilling European night.
Tuesday November 27
West Didsbury, Manchester United, UK
7:15 PM GMT
While both teams were warming up on the pitch of Celtic Park, Noriko and Sarah were watching team news from West Didsbury as they always do when their team plays Champions League matches on the road.
"Did you see the lineups?" Noriko asked.
"I did. I'm kinda disappointed that Nana is only starting on the bench. It's not like she's tired or anything; she only played 25 minutes on Saturday against Cardiff City." Sarah replied.
"I don't agree with the manager on that at all, but I can understand his point."
"What do you mean, Noriko?"
"If you remember the last time we played against Celtic, Nana really pissed off Scott Brown with a strong tackle. That bald Neanderthal had it coming, but it wouldn't be wise to have Nana starting on their turf with that bit of history in mind."
"I see. It's more about protecting her then." Sarah said.
"Indeed. Nana is not getting cold feet with anyone, but this is a case where we can try avoiding trouble. Unless circumstances force her to come on, it's best for her to stay on the bench tonight." Noriko replied.
"As long as we get out of there without too many injuries and with at least a draw, I guess we would be happy." Sarah finished.
Celtic vs. Manchester United (UEFA Champions League group match 5)
Celtic Park, Glasgow, UK
7:53 PM GMT
Manchester United sent the following starting XI: David de Gea (goalkeeper), Antonio Valencia (right-back and captain), Chris Smalling (centre-back), Matthias Köhler (centre-back), Luke Shaw (left-back), Juan Mata (central midfielder), Yusuke Saeki (central midfielder), Paul Pogba (central midfielder), Jesse Lingard (right forward), Kakeru Aizawa (striker), and Anthony Martial (left forward). Feeling unhappy with some players' performances in the previous weekend, Andrew kept a few established players on the bench for the start of the match. It was also a good opportunity what Kakeru can do as a main striker in Europe.
On the other hand, Celtic were starting with the same group of players who started at Old Trafford back in September. Inside the place that Celtic supporters affectionately nickname as "Paradise", the crowd was already making a lot of noise ahead of the players’ entrance on the pitch.
"I can already hear the noise. They don't lie about this crowd's reputation." Kakeru said as he and his teammates began the walk out of their dressing room.
"Yeah, it is the most important match of their season for them." Yusuke replied. "If we can weather the storm and score the important goal, the noise would go down by a few notches."
"You're right, Yusuke."
At that particular moment, the Celtic supporters were holding their scarves up and singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" as their adopted anthem. This render of the anthem was louder than what was heard a few weeks ago at Anfield. In the standing area of the players' tunnel, the Celtic players were already there when the Manchester United players arrived.
"I saw that highlight reel moment of yours from last week against Scotland. That was very impressive, and I was happy that Kaoru scored at the end of it."
"Well, thanks." Kakeru replied.
"Still, that's something we also studied ahead of tonight's match. Don't expect that to work against me, Kakeru."
"I'm not alone in my team, Akitoshi-san. We will come out with a result. Let's have a good game."
"I look forward to it, but Celtic will be joint top of the group after tonight. All right, Kakeru." Akitoshi said as he shook hands with Kakeru, and gave him a wink.
A short time later, both teams walked out of the tunnel and onto the pitch under the roar of the sellout crowd at Celtic Park. Known as one of the most intimidating crowds in football, the green-and-white-wearing supporters screamed their lungs out. As Clive Tyldesley once described the crowd before the confrontation between the same 2 sides at Celtic Park back on November 21, 2006:
Clive Tyldesley: Can anybody hear me? Celtic Park is not a football ground where the manager needs to tell the supporters to roar on the team. Neither manager will be able to make themselves heard until halftime now.
The spectacular sight inside the stadium was the large-scale flag stunt, which displayed green and white hoops. On the West Stand of the stadium, surfer flags reminiscent of the 1967 European Cup and of legendary former manager Jock Stein were displayed. At several places, large Irish flags were deployed as a reminder of the club's deep Irish Catholic roots. Looking around from the Manchester United bench, Nana was impressed by the display. Nevertheless, the customary Champions League Anthem was there to remind Nana of the occasion, so much that she sang along with the anthem. Nana even surprised some of her nearby teammates singing the last lyrics herself.
"...Die Meister …Die Besten …Les Grandes Équipes... The Champions."
After the handshakes, both teams set up for the start. United kicked things off under a hostile reception from the home crowd. Nevertheless, the objective for the visitors from Manchester was to take the crowd of the game at all costs. The first scoring chance came in the 7th minute.
Clive Tyldesley: Taken away by Saeki... it's towards Martial.
Starting an attack from the Manchester United half, Yusuke sliced a pass towards Anthony. The French winger ran with the ball across the halfway line before he looked at passing options ahead of him.
"Heads up! Heads up!" Kakeru shouted.
Having heard the call, Anthony made the though pass for Kakeru, who managed to find the space and stay onside in order to make a push towards the Celtic goal.
Clive Tyldesley: Great ball for Aizawa. No flag. He's in some space...
Although Kakeru dashed forward with the ball, he had 2 Celtic defenders closing down quickly on him. Nevertheless, the Japanese striker knew he had support on his right. As Kakeru just entered the penalty area, he made a side pass for Jesse.
Clive Tyldesley: Lingard with the chance... Fantastic save by Lee!
As Jesse unleashed his shot from just outside the 6-yard box, the goalkeeper was already very close to him, and thus stopped the shot with the right hand. Then a Celtic defender kicked the loose ball out of play in panic, but everyone on the home team had to thank the South Korean goalkeeper for saving the day. On the other hand, Jesse couldn't believe what he just missed.
"Good attempt, Jess. It's OK." Kakeru cheered his English teammate up, who replied with a thumbs-up sign.
Meanwhile at West Didsbury:
"Blimey! This was as good as you can get from an attack right there." Noriko said.
"I know. That goalkeeper keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat just as he did at Old Trafford. It's a matter of defeating him through attrition." Sarah replied.
"If only we can score early, I'm sure we would be in a good spot to get a decent result. Celtic don't have that much attacking punch out there."
"You're right, Noriko. Celtic won their last 3 Champions League matches by a score of 1-0 every time, right?" Sarah asked.
"Spot on. After the first match, they worked hard to play better defensively. I know where I don't want United to be." Noriko finished.
After the previous scoring chance that United squandered, the Celtic players tightened their setup while conceding most of ball possession. As a result, the home side waited for the perfect moment to launch a quick counterattack towards the Manchester United half.
In the 14th minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Lingard... Pogba... A pass forward to Aizawa.
In a spell of gameplay where United controlled the ball inside the Celtic half, Kakeru received the ball from Pog. Spotting Juan nearby, Kakeru attempted a give-and-go with him. However, Juan's pass was intercepted by a Celtic defender, who then passed the ball for his captain, Scott Brown.
Clive Tyldesley: Ajer intercepts the ball. It's Scott Brown on the counterattack.
Scott Brown ran with the ball for several yards before he passed the ball to the right winger, James Forrest. Entering the last third of the pitch, the Celtic winger was quickly followed by Luke. When James Forrest surprised Luke by shifting the run towards the inside, Yusuke stuck the leg out in a reflex motion. As a result, Yusuke conceded an indirect free kick at 30 yards from goal.
Clive Tyldesley: Caught by Saeki. Free kick.
Although the free kick was given, the Celtic players went after the referee. The thousands of Celtic supporters were voicing discontent as the locals wanted Yusuke to receive further punishment for the tackle that prevented the attack from going any further.
"That has to be a yellow card. He tripped our player to deny the attack." Scott Brown argued with the referee.
"Let me deal with this, Scott. I'm the referee here."
When the referee came up facing Yusuke, the two were up for a talk. However, nothing gave the impression that a card would be dished, much to the disappointment of the Glaswegians.
"That was a bad foul, and you should get a yellow card if it wasn't so early in the match. This is your last warning from me. The next foul will earn you a booking. Am I clear?"
"Very clear." Yusuke replied.
Following that moment, both teams moved in their assigned positions for the free kick. Meanwhile, Callum McGregor was ready to take the free kick.
Clive Tyldesley: Callum McGregor will take.
When the referee gave the signal, McGregor shot the ball into the pack of players. However, Matthias cleared the ball away with a thumping header.
Clive Tyldesley: Cleared away by Köhler...
After the ball looped outside the penalty area, the Celtic captain then headed the ball back towards the edge of the penalty area for another teammate.
Clive Tyldesley: Ajer... It's for Édouard...
Celtic's Danish defender Kristoffer Ajer headed the ball sideways and into the path of striker Odsonne Édouard. Knowing that the Celtic striker had a clear shooting lane, Yusuke went in as fast as he could to block the upcoming shot. However, Édouard’s shot went off Yusuke's leg before it looped into the top corner of the goal. The Manchester United goalkeeper was caught off guard as well.
Clive Tyldesley: Deflected and in! The ball struck Yusuke Saeki on the way, but Odsonne Édouard has given Celtic the lead. As it happened at Old Trafford in September, Manchester United have fallen behind Celtic.
Celtic Park went into total bedlam as the vast majority among the 59,000+ in the attendance celebrated with an absolutely deafening roar before the thousands of Celtic supporters started adding their own voices to sing the goal song, Zombie Nation's "Kernkraft 400". On the other hand, everyone associated with United was left in stunned disbelief as the Mancunians were 0-1 down on what was the first crack at goal Celtic had.
"Damn!" Yusuke cursed. "I should have stopped it."
"You did your best, Yusuke. This ain't over yet." Kakeru comforted his friend.
"Come on, lads! Pick it up! We can get back in this!" Matthias rallied his teammates.
Meanwhile on the Manchester United bench:
'Definitely not the best position for us even if we're looking for a draw. They scored on their first chance, and can now focus on parking the bus. There's only one way to deal with that, but the problem is that we look flat so far.' Nana thought.
"What are you thinking, Witch?" Ander asked.
"About showing more intensity in order to get back on the scoreline. We will need a spark from somewhere." Nana replied.
"We need to attack more." Ander said.
"Yeah, but we must put our energy in the right place, at the right time too." Nana finished.
Unfortunately for United, Celtic played very well defensively for most of the first half. With many Celtc players holding the line, it was very difficult for the visiting team to find gaps in the home team's setup. The next good scoring chance only came in the 31st minute.
Clive Tyldesley: Lingard gets past Tierney… a cross...
After getting past the Celtic left-back, Jesse attempted a low cross in the Celtic penalty area for Kakeru. However, a Celtic defender cleared the ball away from the penalty area... only for Antonio to recover the ball and continue the attack.
Clive Tyldesley: Antonio Valencia... now to Juan Mata.
After a pass from Antonio towards Juan in the middle, the latter ran a few yards forward before he spotted Kakeru all alone in the penalty area for a split second. The Spaniard immediately passed the ball to Kakeru.
Clive Tyldesley: Good pass for Aizawa...
Kakeru went a few yards further in the Celtic penalty area, but also found himself at an angle from goal. Celtic left-back Kieran Tierney tried to tackle the ball away from Kakeru, but the Japanese striker scooped the ball away from the tackle. At that moment, 2 Celtic players rushed towards him. Nevertheless, Kakeru had a plan.
‘Brown's there. Boyata and Ajer are there. There's my chance.' Kakeru thought.
Almost immediately, Kakeru struck the quick left-footed curling shot towards the far bottom corner of the Celtic goal. The moment was perfect as the 2 central defenders acted as screens against Akitoshi. However, the South Korean goalkeeper managed to dive in, and got enough fingertips on the ball to let it trickle just wide.
Clive Tyldesley: Another terrific save by Lee! How did he see that ball with so many bodies in front of him? Aizawa just can't believe it.
Aizawa was indeed holding his hands on his head in disbelief. The substitutes and coaches on the Manchester United bench also couldn't believe what they just saw either. Everyone in the stadium was convinced that Kakeru's shot would be a sure goal.
Meanwhile at West Didsbury:
"No bloody way!" Noriko exclaimed.
"I really give up with this goalkeeper now. This is getting ridiculous." Sarah said.
"We need to get that ball more often on goal, and beat him by attrition. Our chances have been too few and far between."
"Yeah, but it's really frustrating that we can't break them down, Noriko."
"I think we just need a spark from somewhere offensively. Perhaps Nana will have to come on at some point after all." Noriko said.
"Hopefully, she can take advantage of a tired Celtic team." Sarah replied.
"That’s the whole point." Noriko finished.
The rest of the first half winded down until halftime. It was mostly uneventful as United didn't have good scoring chances since the 31st minute. Furthermore, the Mancunians appeared to have a tough time finding their marks in the middle of that hostile environment. Meanwhile, Celtic spent most of the time keeping the Manchester United players away from dangerous positions. Celtic didn't really pose any threat to the Manchester United goal either. At the break, the scoreline read: Celtic 1-0 Manchester United.
In the Manchester United dressing room at halftime:
"Move the ball quicker! FIND THE OPEN SPACE AND EXPLOIT IT! We need to be hungry now we're down 0-1. I want to see character out there. We're down, OK. But we come back. Give them nothing, and get the next goal! We do this together! We have 45 minutes left, so let's win that second half!" Andrew said in his halftime speech.
The manager was not happy with his team's performance in the first half, and felt obliged to remind everyone of what was at stakes. All United needed was to win the second half on the number of goals scored. After the team talk and after the substitutes left the dressing room to warm up a little on the pitch, Kakeru and the other players had a talk.
"What did Nana tell you before she left to warm up with the other substitutes?" Matthias asked Kakeru.
"She told me that she doesn't care how hostile the guys on the other side are towards her, and that she is ready to go to war if that helps us in getting a result. She also said she expects the same from all of us." Kakeru replied.
"Yeah, we need to be brave and get our noses really dirty in there. Our approach has been too timid so far." Yusuke said
"If we can get more bodies in the right areas, we'll have chances. We will hold the line at the back, so keep pushing ahead, you guys up front." Matthias said.
"Right." Kakeru and Jesse said.
"Compte sur moi (Count on me)." Anthony added.
"Pog, Yusuke. If you have even a shooting angle from distance, have a crack at it." Matthias said.
"Will do." Yusuke replied.
"Let's seal that top spot." Kakeru finished.
Resolved with the intent of winning the second half to come out with a draw or more, the Manchester United players came onto the pitch with fire in their eyes. Whereas the Celtic players appeared ready to defend the slender lead they had at the start of the second half, they would soon find themselves facing a more determined opponent.
Clive Tyldesley: Second half is under way. Can Celtic can hold on, or can Manchester United add a twist on the night?
Kakeru and Juan kicked things off in the second half. After a few passes strung together in the middle of the park, Anthony and Luke led the rush on the left flank. Moving the action in the Celtic half, Anthony made a layoff pass into Luke’s overlapping run. Luke then attempted a cross in the Celtic penalty area, but a Celtic defender cleared the ball behind the goal line.
Clive Tyldesley: It's a corner kick for Manchester United.
Both teams quickly moved into positions. Upon the referee's signal, Juan kicked the ball with a curl that appeared to push the ball towards the near post, where Yusuke deflected the ball with his head. Although the bouncing header was not going goal-wards, Matthias jumped in to redirect the ball in the right direction. A split second later, Kakeru had a poke on the ball in mid-air.
Clive Tyldesley: Köhler... Good ball in for Aizawa!
Kakeru's flick surprised Akitoshi and was bound for goal, but the ball was cleared off the line by a Celtic player who was guarding at the post.
Clive Tyldesley: It's cleared off the line! Appeals for a goal, but nothing doing.
"Hey! Hey!" Kakeru shouted with his arm raised up.
"That was over the line, ref!" Matthias said as well.
The Manchester United players, both on the pitch and on the bench, appealed to the referees for a goal, but to no avail. The TV replays ended up supporting the referee's decision as the ball did not fully cross the line on the last action. It was only a whisker away, but still not enough.
Clive Tyldesley: Manchester United came a whisker away in the first minute of the second half.
Meanwhile in West Didsbury:
"Lucky bastard!" Noriko exclaimed.
"Kakeru had the goalkeeper beaten for a change. Damn it!" Sarah added.
"Yeah, that was almost a sure goal. Still, that's exactly want I wanted to see from the first minute of the second half: attack right from the restart."
"Spot on, Noriko. Hopefully, we won't stop now." Sarah said.
United were certainly not going to stop; it was only a taste of things to come. For several minutes, the visitors were holding the Celtic players on their toes as threats could come from anywhere at any moment. Even when Celtic tried to control the ball and push the action in United's half, United were also dangerous on the counterattack.
In the 52nd minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Brown... on the right to James Forrest. Attempted cross... blocked by Köhler. Now Pogba...
Following an interception made by Matthias, Pog received the ball. Then the Frenchman made his way towards the halfway line. From there, Pog passed the ball ahead to Anthony, who was on his way inside the Celtic half.
Clive Tyldesley: Martial... cuts his way in...
Knowing that he had Luke in support to bait the Celtic right-back out of the equation, Anthony curved his run towards the inside. Then Anthony passed the ball towards Kakeru. Although Kakeru was on the edge of the penalty area, he also had 4 Celtic players around him. Nevertheless, Kakeru instinctively flicked a layoff pass into Juan's path.
Clive Tyldesley: Aizawa... nice flick for Juan Mata...
Having found an opening, the Spanish attacking midfielder took the low and hard shot towards the bottom corner at Akitoshi's left. However, the South Korean goalkeeper got his finger tips on the ball once again. On the follow-up, a Celtic defender kicked the ball out of danger.
Clive Tyldesley: Another really good stop by Lee! It's cleared away by Boyata.
"¡Mierda! (Crap!)" Juan exclaimed before he turned towards Kakeru. "Nice pass, Knight."
"Nice shot." Kakeru replied before he switched to his own thoughts. 'Just wait and see, Akitoshi-san.'
Later in the 57th minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Tierney... Ajer... High pressure by Aizawa, and it forces Lee to kick out.
When the Celtic defenders passed the ball between each other, Kakeru's presence forced one of the defenders to pass the ball towards Akitoshi, who then had to kick the ball down the pitch as Kakeru ran towards him. The ball was chested down by the isolated United midfielder Paul Pogba in the center circle. Then Pog made the pass towards Yusuke.
"Not on my watch!" Scott Brown shouted as he came rushing towards Yusuke.
'Watch this' Yusuke thought.
As Brown lunged in to make a tackle, Yusuke performed a heel flick turn to change direction and thus avoid the Celtic captain.
Clive Tyldesley: Clever move by Saeki… He's looking forward.
Looking ahead of him, Yusuke spotted the running Jesse on the shoulders of the Celtic defenders. Without any hesitation, Yusuke launched a looping through ball for his teammate, and caught the Celtic defenders off guard.
Clive Tyldesley: It's for Lingard. No flag. Is this the moment?
Jesse had to chest the ball down on Yusuke's aerial pass, which gave Akitoshi enough time to rush towards the Manchester United forward. As a result, Jesse took a quick shot only to be denied by Akitoshi. However, the ball was still loose...
Clive Tyldesley: Oh, the goalkeeper saves it! It's still loose...
Kakeru was running as fast as he could to reach the loose ball, but Akitoshi managed to smother the ball a split second before Kakeru arrived.
Clive Tyldesley: Smothered by Lee. Another chance denied by the South Korean goalkeeper.
While Kakeru was clenching his teeth as he watched his former high school teammate recover the ball, Akitoshi said: "Not today, Kakeru. I'm not letting anything through today."
"This is far from over." Kakeru replied.
Meanwhile on the touchlines:
"Keep on pushing, lads! Don't give up now!" Nana shouted from her position. She was warming up with substitutes Romelu Lukaku and Ashley Young as the first change was expected to be made in the next few minutes.
"Can't blame the effort there, but we need more." Romelu said. The Belgian was among the players whom Andrew put on the bench because of his currently poor form, but he remained an emergency measure for that match.
"I agree. We still need that extra something." Nana finished before she moved back to warming up.
United continued to hold a firm control on the second half, but Celtic didn't crack as of yet. In the 63rd minute, Celtic had their first corner kick of the second half. At that moment, no one knew that fireworks would soon blow up between the 2 sides.
Clive Tyldesley: It's a rare corner kick for Celtic.
When the corner kick was taken, the ball flew towards Celtic defender Kristoffer Ajer, who made a clean contact with the ball. However, the Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea managed to catch the ball with both hands. Waiting for the perfect moment, David threw the ball forward towards Jesse.
Clive Tyldesley: Lingard is on the run... Tierney's on him. A pass towards Juan Mata...
The danger at that moment was that United almost had a 3v2 situation on the rush following Jesse's pass. As Juan received the ball, he was greeted by a strong tackle from the Celtic Captain. In the process, the tackle caught Juan on the foot.
"HEY, REF!" the Manchester United players shouted in unison.
Clive Tyldesley: It's a bad foul by Brown on Juan Mata. What is the referee going to do here?
"Hey, I went as fast as I could." Scott Brown defended his last action.
"Come here, you bald bastard!" Yusuke confronted the Celtic captain.
"Hey, beat it!" Brown replied.
"You take on one of us, you get all of us." Matthias said.
Meanwhile in West Didsbury:
"Tell me he's getting booked! Come on, you stupid Turkish ref!" Noriko shouted at her TV screen.
"He's going for it. There you go." Sarah said.
Clive Tyldesley: It's a yellow card for Scott Brown.
"That bald meathead is nothing but a bully without any talent."
"And yet, he thinks he's a tough guy." Sarah said.
"He's lucky he has not met Roy Keane back in the days. That baldy wouldn't stand for 5 minutes against Keano." Noriko replied.
"Yeah!" Sarah said. "Keano would have sent him to the hospital right away."
Back at Celtic Park, opposing players were still arguing against one another or holding their teammates. At the same time, the Manchester United physio and the Manchester United team doctor came to examine Juan's condition. Not before long, the doctor made sign to the bench for a substitution to proceed.
"Nana, you're coming on. Get ready." Andrew ordered.
"Coming, Boss." Nana replied before she started taking her tracksuit off.
Clive Tyldesley: Manchester United are forced to make a change. Nana Mishima will come on to replace the injured Juan Mata.
When Nana finally came on the pitch, she was greeted by boos from the Celtic supporters. It was nothing she couldn't handle though. The first opponent she noticed was Scott, who was holding a long glare towards her.
"What are you looking at?" Nana asked.
"You better stay out of my way, girl. 'Cause I will get your arse." Scott Brown replied.
"Watch me turn you into a car accident if you dare." Nana replied with a smirk.
After the substitution, the action continued with United controlling the ball for most of the time in the next few minutes. In the 66th minute, Andrew ordered Romelu to come and replace Anthony while Kakeru was tasked to attack from the left wing. Nana had to hold her ground a few times against Scott in open play; the Celtic captain was hounding the Little Witch in order to disrupt any attacking buildup. Nevertheless, it wasn't that long before the hunted becomes the hunter.
In the 68th minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Lustig has won it back for Celtic. It's towards Brown...
As Scott ran after the ball in an attempt to start a counterattack from deep in Celtic's half, Nana came in with only one thing in mind.
"You stop here." Nana said.
With a well-timed sliding tackle, Nana pushed the ball away from Scott. In the process, the Celtic captain was sent sprawling on the grass.
Clive Tyldesley: Good challenge by Mishima. Referee lets the play continue.
The loose ball went to Yusuke, who then passed on the left towards Jesse on the right wing. The English winger tried to skip past a Celtic defender. However, the defender instinctively tripped Jesse, and thus conceded an indirect free kick.
Clive Tyldesley: Tierney with the foul. Manchester United have a free kick.
As players from both teams moved into position for the upcoming free kick, Scott Brown was trying to play mind games with Nana.
"Love playing tough? Ye'll get some, I'll tell ye." Brown said.
"Write me a book while you're at it." Nana quipped in return.
Kakeru was looking perplexedly at the situation.
"You're really scary, Seven."
"I know, Kakeru. Just focus on getting the job done in front of goal."
"Find a friendly head in the mix then." Kakeru finished before he joined the lot of player attacking the Celtic penalty area. Meanwhile, Nana was getting ready to shoot the indirect free kick.
Clive Tyldesley: Mishima with the free kick.
Following the referee's signal, Nana sent an aerial ball that was flying towards her running teammates. Akitoshi tried to jump up and punch the ball in mid-air, but Matthias and Pog came barging in, and collided with the Celtic goalkeeper. As a result, the ball came out of reach for the colliding opponents, and Kakeru easily tapped the ball into the gaping goal.
Clive Tyldesley: Oh, Aizawa has equalized...
The referee blew his whistle several times to call the game back. At the same time, Kakeru saw the linesman pointing his flag in the direction that indicated a free kick for Celtic. The goal was disallowed.
Clive Tyldesley: ...Oh, no. The referee has disallowed it.
Several Manchester United players went after the referee to ask why the goal was disallowed.
"What is that, referee? Why is the goal not good?" Kakeru asked.
"Why? That goal is good." Matthias asked as well.
"You and the number 6 ran into the goalkeeper. He was not able to do his job. Free kick for Celtic." the referee replied.
"I went for the ball. I had every right to." Matthias defended his action.
"The goalkeeper messed up by himself. There was nothing wrong on the goal." Pog also added.
"This is outrageous!" Nana added her voice to the protests, but the referee brushed them away.
Meanwhile in West Didsbury:
"I don't believe this. I just don't." Noriko lamented.
"That's a horrible decision. Everyone went for the ball; no one went there to foul anybody." Sarah replied.
"Soft like hell. It's the only thing I don't like about European competitions; referees don't let players put up a real battle." Noriko finished.
From that point on, frustration kept on building up in the Manchester United camp as nothing seemed to crack Celtic's resistance. Meanwhile, Nana and Scott Brown continued having tightly contested 1v1 duels against one another for several minutes. The Little Witch dished her share of strong tackles against the Celtic midfielders. However, no one could foresee what was about to happen.
In the 79th minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Mishima...
On the edge of penalty area, Nana skipped past a Celtic defender before she sent an aerial cross towards the front of the Celtic net. With the ball in his sights, Romelu adjusted his body position, and threw himself in the air to strike a bicycle kick 8 yards away from goal. However, a Celtic defender got his head in the shooting lane.
Clive Tyldesley: Oh! What a brilliant block! It was Boyata who stopped Lukaku's spectacular attempt.
The ball was loose, but the play continued as Luke retrieved the ball, and then passed it towards Yusuke. Looking for Kakeru inside the Celtic penalty area, Yusuke ran past a Celtic player before attempting the through pass.
Clive Tyldesley: Saeki... read by Ajer.
Unfortunately, the pass was intercepted by Kristoffer Ajer. On the following second, the ball went towards the Celtic captain. As Scott Brown started his run forward, Nana came in with a strong tackle that missed the ball this time. Nevertheless, the end result was that Nana stopped Celtic's counterattack dead.
Clive Tyldesley: It's a foul by Mishima, and she might get a yellow card... Now, has Scott Brown kicked out?
After Scott Brown fell on the grass, he kicked out at Nana in anger. Within 2 seconds, both opponents started shoving one another.
"I have enough with ye! Let's go!" Scott exclaimed.
"Want a piece of me, bawheid? Come on, I'm right here!" Nana replied. She made sure to capture the right Scottish tone of the "bald head" insult against the Celtic captain.
"Hey! Back off, baldy!" Kakeru came in, and shoved the Celtic captain as well.
"No one asked ye!"
"Try me, horseface!" Kakeru stood up.
Most players from both sides only came in to cool things off, but a few of them took part in the pushing and shoving. Nevertheless, the referee came in pulling out his yellow card. The first player he went to was Scott.
"You kick out at a player like that, you get a card. You're off now." the referee said.
"Hey! She started the whole thing." the Celtic captain replied.
"I don't care. You were already on a card, so you pay the price for that." the referee added as he pulled the red card out of the other pocket, to the dismay of the home supporters.
Clive Tyldesley: It's a second yellow card for Scott Brown. The referee has issued a red card, but that incident could have been worth a straight red card in itself. It looks like Mishima will only get a yellow card.
"That was reckless, Mishima. It's the last time I allow you to finish the game. Nothing more after that." the referee said before he showed Nana the yellow card.
While the Celtic captain was walking towards the exit tunnel, he stopped a few times to shout a few angry comments at Nana, who only replied with a blah-blah hand gesture. It was more an attempt to stall United and to give more time for Celtic in reorganizing their defensive tactics.
Clive Tyldesley: Scott Brown has to leave the pitch, but he is not done talking with Mishima just yet.
Finally, the stewards and Celtic staff pulled their sent-off captain away. At the same time in West Didsbury, Noriko and Sarah were watching the events unfolding.
"Don't feel too brilliant now, eh? Go home, you bald pillock!" Noriko exclaimed.
"Nana really is something of a character. That Celtic captain really got his mad up (got angry), but she was almost asking for more." Sarah said.
"That's exactly why she made the cut against men, Sarah. She wouldn't even back down from a scrap if things boiled down to that."
"I know, Noriko. Still, it's always scary when I see Nana getting involved like that."
"Yeah, I feel the same sometimes too. In any case, she will always find ways to give us an extra edge." Noriko finished.
With Celtic down to 10 men, the home side was forced to take Tom Rogic off for a more versatile midfielder who would help in defending the lead. Celtic also replaced Odsonne Édouard and Callum McGregor with Scottish defender Jack Hendry and English forward Scott Sinclair. Hendry’s inclusion was meant to add more bodies at the back. Applying tremendous pressure, the Mancunians were hoping that it would be just a matter of time before the home side would crack.
In the 84th minute:
Clive Tyldesley: Lee had to hurry...
With Kakeru and Nana applying pressure on the Celtic defenders, Akitoshi had to come out and kick the ball a little far on his own left. The Celtic left-back headed the ball towards the middle of the field to prevent conceding a throw-in. However, the ball fell into the feet of Manchester United defender Chris Smalling.
Clive Tyldesley: Smalling wins it back for Mishima. Now Aizawa...
With quick successive passes, Chris sent the ball to Nana, who then flicked a long ball towards Kakeru. Playing on the left wing, Kakeru cut his run inside the Celtic penalty area before he passed the ball across and towards a small area in front of the 18-yard box.
Clive Tyldesley: ...pulls back for SAEKI! Stopped by Lee again!
Yusuke unleashed a piledriver of a shot, but Akitoshi managed to get enough hand on the shot to put the ball behind. With no time to dwell on the recent miss, the Manchester United players moved into positions for the following corner kick. As Nana took the ball to the corner flag at the northeastern corner of the stands, the Celtic supporters poured down boos on her. The Manchester United supporters in the southeastern corner across the width of the pitch kept on singing their hearts out in response.
'Come on, guys. Get on the end of this gift.' Nana thought.
Clive Tyldesley: Nana Mishima is ready to take the kick.
Nana then kicked the ball towards the near edge of the 6-yard box. In that area, Romelu took advantage of Kakeru's presence as a distraction to outjump the Celtic players.
Clive Tyldesley: It's LUKAKU! Off the bar...
Romelu's powerful header beat Akitoshi, but not the crossbar. With a lot of pace on the rebound, Chris missed his header shot. Fortunately for United, the big German, Matthias Köhler, was there to hit the loose ball into an open goal.
Clive Tyldesley: IT'S IN! MATTHIAS KÖHLER! Manchester United have equalized! It's a goal for the big man after Lukaku smacked the ball into the woodwork.
In a flash, all Manchester United players came rushing towards the away supporters to celebrate the goal altogether. There was a massive sense of relief among the people associated with the Red Devils.
"Well done, Matthias!" Kakeru congratulated.
"Get in!" Yusuke added.
"Great goal. Let's go for more." Nana added.
"COME ON!" several Manchester United players shouted, urging the away supporters to make even more noise.
Meanwhile in West Didsbury:
"That's a big time goal. We really needed that." Noriko said.
"It really changes everything now. You think Celtic have something left?" Sarah asked.
"I would be surprised if they can find enough energy to attack now. They spent so much time defending, so they are probably exhausted now, especially with 10 men." Noriko replied.
And Noriko saw it right. Following the equalizer, Celtic were not able to mount any serious threat on the Manchester United goal after wasting so much energy to defend a lead that finally ended up in smoke. On the other hand, the visitors were mostly satisfied in passing the ball around in order to protect the 1-1 result without risking more injuries. Nevertheless, United were not finished attacking yet.
In the dying seconds of the match, deep in injury time:
Clive Tyldesley: Mishima... Lukaku... back to Mishima...
With almost all the Celtic defenders trying to hold the line as well as possible, Nana executed a quick pass-and-move action with Romelu, who was standing on the edge of the Celtic penalty area. As Nana was about to receive the ball, she spotted Jesse making a run inside the penalty area. Without any hesitation, Nana made the pass towards the Englishman.
Clive Tyldesley: It's Lingard. No flag! Brilliant play...
With no choice left, Akitoshi committed himself with a rush towards Jesse. At the same time, the Englishman spotted Kakeru in the open to his left, and immediately passed the ball towards Kakeru's path. At that moment, Kakeru had Akitoshi at his mercy. However, fate took an unexpected turn.
Clive Tyldesley: AIZAWA! OH, HE MISSED!!!
At the very second Kakeru was about to shoot the ball, he slipped on the grass, miskicking the ball just above the crossbar. No one associated with Manchester United could believe what just happened. Kakeru couldn't ask for a better ball, but the little slip converted the golden opportunity into one of his most glaring misses ever.
Clive Tyldesley: Kakeru Aizawa had the winning goal on the tip of his boot, but sent it over the crossbar. I think he slipped on the way in.
Disgusted by the miss, Kakeru slapped the ground in frustration before he got up, and walked outside of the Celtic penalty area. After Akitoshi took the goal kick a few seconds later, the referee put an end to the contest.
PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEP!!!
A respectful round of applause was heard in the stands at Celtic Park as the final result was 1-1. Players from both teams shook hands sportingly. For the second time in this season's Champions League campaign, Kakeru and Nana met Akitoshi once again at the center of the pitch to congratulate each other.
"Good match, Akitoshi-san." Kakeru said.
"Thanks, Kakeru. Your team ended up getting the result you wanted."
"Yeah, but I was hoping it would be a little better for us."
"Don't dwell too much about it, Kakeru. We didn't really deserve a result with the way we played tonight. You guys dominated the match." Akitoshi said to Kakeru before he turned towards Nana. "Good match, Nana-chan."
"Thanks. I hope you don't have any hard feelings against me because I got your captain sent off." Nana said.
"Not really. Scott has had his moments of madness a few times before. I'm sure the manager will have a word with him."
"I hope so too." Nana said.
"Well, that's that for this season's Champions League between our 2 clubs unless we somehow face each other in the elimination rounds. Good luck in the next round in February." Akitoshi said.
"Thanks. Good luck to your team too." Kakeru finished.
As Kakeru and Nana joined the rest of their teammates to salute their travelling supporters, the general feeling was one of relief as United got the result they wanted to clinch the top of the group, which gives a better seeding for the upcoming December draw for the round of 16 in the competition. The focus was now switched towards domestic competitions only and until the end of February. However, the final result was costly as Juan Mata was diagnosed with a fractured metatarsal that would rule him out of all competitions for at least 5 weeks.
Sunday December 2
West Didsbury, Manchester, UK
The following match in the Premier League ended up in the first defeat of the season at Old Trafford in which United lost 1-2 to another promoted side, Fulham (December 1st). As a result, United were starting to trail behind Arsenal and Manchester City in the race for the Premier League title after 14 matches played. Following a couple of poor results against newly promoted sides, several media started asking questions about what has been going on with United since the last victory was earned before the recent international break. One of those questions was about Kakeru's lack of end product in front of goal since the Chelsea match. For the man himself, criticism was getting a little annoying.
"Seriously, the media are a disgrace. It's not like we did not try scoring more than 1 goal per game in our last 3 matches. I could have scored a couple more if I was luckier; same thing for anyone else." Kakeru fumed.
"No need to make a fuss about it, Kakeru. You know how the media are in this country." Nana tried to comfort Kakeru.
"Nana is right. They are not worth such attention, and most of them hate us enough to entertain a negative narrative. If you stopped having chances, then it would be a bigger problem. But that's not the case. Think about the Celtic match on Tuesday; it was both a combination of bad luck and the goalkeeper playing something close to the game of his life." Noriko added.
"I know. It has been only 3 club matches, and yet they make it as if I didn't score in 10 matches." Kakeru replied.
"Perhaps it's because you already raised the standards in everyone's eyes so far, and thus people expect for more. No one has scored more than 14 goals in all competitions for any English club so far. You're just putting too much pressure on yourself." Yusuke said.
"Good point, Yusuke. Kakeru, you are the joint top scorer in the country as of now. It will be fine when you start scoring again." Noriko added.
"Well... I think I just need something to take those distractions off my mind now." Kakeru said.
"Grab yourself a good pair of kickers, Kakeru. I just know where to go for that." Nana replied.
"What? Oh... OK."
Surprised at first, Kakeru grabbed his gear before he followed Nana outside. Meanwhile, Noriko and Yusuke stayed at home.
"You sure you didn't want to join them?" Yusuke asked Noriko.
"I think they will be fine. After all, Kakeru and Nana are more acquainted with those kids than I am."
"So what are your plans for today?"
"I thought of reading some stuff for my clinical work, but only after I go jogging outside for 30 minutes." Noriko said.
"Let me join you on the jogging part. If you want, I can help you with... an extra workout session at my place between jogging and your work." Yusuke replied.
"The offer sounds very tempting." Noriko smiled.
Now back to Kakeru and Nana, they walked their way to Fog Lane Park where they met Claire and several of her friends playing football. Claire was the first to greet the Japanese couple.
"Hello, Claire. How are you doing?"
"I'm doing fine. And you?"
"Good, good. It's a good thing that you texted me and invited us to play with you guys today." Nana said.
"I saw Kakeru being unhappy yesterday, so my friends and I thought we could cheer him up." Claire said.
"I have to say it's nice of you to think about us like that. Thanks." Kakeru replied before he noticed someone was absent. "I don't see Brendan with you. Is he OK? The last time I heard of him, he was doing great after he left the hospital."
"He's doing fine. It's just that he's putting more effort into his school work. He's really different from before he got sick, and he's studying a lot more than he used to." Claire said.
"It looks like you told him a few good words to remember about the importance of academics, Kakeru." Nana said to Kakeru.
"Looks like it." Kakeru smiled.
"As long as he keeps his share of time doing physical activity, that's perfect." Nana said to Claire.
"That’s right. Well, let's play!" Claire said.
"Here we go!" Kakeru finished.
Kakeru and Nana then played with the kids for a full hour. On the following day, Kakeru came back to training with a more relaxed mindset. It was the most welcome thing for the Red Devils ahead of the highly anticipated Manchester derby, which would pit United against crosstown rivals Manchester City F.C. in another Red versus Blue showdown. With more than just pride at stakes, the Manchester derby was going to be a battle with a hefty price to pay for victory.