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New Year, A Little Resistance

With 2 important victories in the festive period so far, morale was high among Manchester United players. There was a feeling that all the woes from late November to the middle of December were finally laid to rest. With the calendar year coming to an end, all Premier League players were still required to make sacrifices to maintain top fitness levels for one last challenge: the first match of the calendar year, which takes place either on January 1st or January 2nd.


Monday December 31

Lowry Hotel, Manchester, UK

11:45 PM GMT

For the last night of the year, the Manchester United players and coaches were all gathered at the Lowry Hotel. It was routine preparation ahead of any home match for the Red Devils. Although Kakeru was not officially cleared to take part in first-team training sessions at the time, he was allowed to stick around the first team. As a result, Kakeru and Nana were again roommates for the upcoming home game.

Kakeru and Nana were wearing their pajamas, watching the New Year's Eve celebrations live from Manchester on local television. The city was lively, but the main gathering place for the celebrations was in front of the town hall on Albert Square, only half a mile away from the hotel. There was a live concert going on at the square with a crowd in the thousands.

"You know you could afford to be there right now since you're not fit to play yet, Kakeru. Noriko is with her family over there, and she wrote that it is the biggest party she has ever seen in Manchester on a December 31st yet." Nana said.

"And celebrating the New Year without you? Not a chance." Kakeru replied.

"Yeah, but you are missing something when you can afford to be there."

"I know I can, but I'm a part of this team from start to finish. It means that I will endure what all of my teammates have to endure. And besides, we still have a good view up here for the midnight fireworks." Kakeru said.

"Let's see the fireworks then." Nana replied.

Then someone knocked at the door, which got Kakeru walking to open it. Waiting in front of the door was the assistant manager, Michael Carrick.

"Everything all right here?" Michael asked.

"Everything's fine, Carras. We were just watching the downtown celebrations on TV." Kakeru replied.

"OK, OK. Still, make sure you don't stay up too late. You have a match to play tomorrow."

"We're only waiting to see the midnight fireworks. When they are stopped, we're off to bed." Nana said.

"OK then. Goodnight and Happy New Year."

"Goodnight and Happy New Year, Carras." Kakeru and Nana replied to Michael, who then left towards the next room. Kakeru then closed the door.

Minutes later, the final countdown to the New Year was on.

"10... 9... 8... 7... 6... 5... 4... 3... 2... 1..." Kakeru and Nana counted altogether.

When the clock struck midnight, a large array of fireworks was released from the roof of the town hall, illuminating the Manchester sky with colors.

"Whoa! It never gets old to see this." Nana said.

"I know. Happy New Year, Nana." Kakeru hugged Nana from behind.

"Happy New Year, Kakeru." Nana reached Kakeru's cheek, and stroked it gently.

"You see: this is why I didn't want to spend this moment without you, Nana."

"Then I will say you made a wise choice, Kakeru."

Kakeru and Nana then continued watching the fireworks for another 10 minutes. At 12:10 AM, the fireworks finally stopped with the crowd at Albert Square giving one last round of cheers and applause for the colorful display.

"Well, that was it." Kakeru said.

"It was beautiful indeed. Off to sleep now." Nana replied.

Kakeru and Nana then went to bed. Under the blanket, Kakeru held onto Nana tightly as if he didn't want to let her go.

"Hey, I'm not going anywhere." Nana said.

"It's just that I was thinking about us getting finally married this year. Since I realized I had feelings for you for all those years, I kept on wishing this dream to become a reality." Kakeru replied.

"This dream is also something I wished for so long, and it will happen. This year will be our year. I promise, Kakeru."

"I promise it too, Nana."

"But we'll take it one day at the time. Let's think about the match first." Nana said.

"You're right about that. Goodnight, Nana."

"Goodnight, Kakeru."


Tuesday January 1st

Manchester United vs. Southampton (Premier League match 21)

Old Trafford, Manchester, UK

2:49 PM GMT

Depending on how the calendar is set, Premier League clubs play their first match of the New Year on January 1st or on January 2nd. Arsenal already kicked the New Year by destroying Fulham with a score of 4-1 at the Emirates Stadium. With that result, Arsenal were holding a temporary 9-point lead in front of Manchester United. Hence a victory was imperative for United to stay in the title race, but they had to get on top of a side that held them to a 1-1 draw back in October: Southampton F.C. The opposition was one that was reckoned as very hard to beat. If someone was not fond enough of playing with puns, it was a battle between Red Devils and Saints as those were nicknames for United and Southampton respectively. Both teams were set for a traditional 3:00 PM kickoff.

Wearing the Manchester United tracksuit, Kakeru was watching the warmup from the touchlines as if he was with the team. He even had the time to sign a number of autographs with the spectators near the players' tunnel. When both teams finished warming up, Kakeru joined his teammates into the dressing room to attend the final pre-match team talk.

"OK, lads. We all made our resolutions for the New Year yesterday, and I made a few for the next 6 months or so. Today, it's like a fresh start. We spoke about everything for this match. You are well prepared and you know what to do. If they want to put up challenge, let's go after them. They call themselves the Saints, but this is our Hell! Let's go!" Andrew said.

The Manchester United players responded with a round of applause ad a few shouts. Kakeru took time to wish good luck to all of his teammates in the match squad s they walked out of the dressing room. Nana was standing as the last player in the starting XI to walk out.

"Give them a heck of a game, Seven." Kakeru said.

"Thanks, Kakeru. We'll go for it." Nana replied before she gave Kakeru a hug.

After Kakeru was done with the words of good luck, he walked his way towards his seat in the stands to join his other teammates who were not part of the 18-man squad. Meanwhile, Noriko and her family already arrived at their usual seats in the South Stand.

"It's has been a while since Nana started a match in the Premier League with neither Kakeru nor Yusuke in the side." Robert said.

"You're right, Dad. But she still has a very good supporting cast around her today." Noriko replied.

"I hope Nana will have a good game today. She had a difficult outing against Southampton earlier this season." Sayuri said.

"It's part of a player's growth to overcome an obstacle. If Nana wants to grow as a player, she will push forward to make a difference." Harry replied.

"Spot on, Grandpa. Knowing Nana, she will take on the challenge." Noriko finished.

When both teams walked out of the tunnel, the Manchester United field players were recognizable in their red shirts, black shorts, and black and red socks. On the other hand, the Southampton field players were wearing yellow and blue shirts, blue shorts, and blue socks.

Manchester United fielded the following 4-3-3 formation: David de Gea (goalkeeper), Antonio Valencia (right-back and captain), Victor Lindelöf (centre-back), Matthias Köhler (centre-back), Luke Shaw (left-back), Nana Mishima (central midfielder), Nemanja Matić (central midfielder), Paul Pogba (central midfielder), Juan Mata (right forward), Anthony Martial (striker), Alexis Sánchez (left forward). Because of the number of matches played in such a short amount of time, some regular players like Romelu Lukaku had to start the match on the bench. Nevertheless, Romelu was ready to come on at anytime as a nuclear option should things not go according to plan for United. Another noticeable addition was the return of the skipper Antonio Valencia after a long absence due to various injury-related struggles.

Meanwhile, Southampton fielded the following 4-2-3-1 formation: Alex McCarthy (goalkeeper), Cédric Soares (right-back), Jack Stephens (centre-back), Maya Yoshida (centre-back), Matt Targett (left-back), Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (defensive midfielder and captain), Oriol Romeu. (defensive midfielder), James Ward-Prowse (right winger), Stuart Armstrong (attacking midfielder), Natthan Redmond (left winger), and Manolo Gabbiadini (striker). For the Saints, it was an opportunity for several players to prove their value exactly a month after their previous manager was fired. Japan's captain Maya Yoshida was set to fly towards the UAE for the pre-tournament camp of Asian Cup after the match, but he was standing as an opponent at the moment.

In the first match of the New Year for both teams, the visitors from the Southern coast of England chose to kick things off. Although United looked like the more aggressive side, the Saints didn't take long to push the action in the other side of the halfway line with an attack of their own.

In the 5th minute:

Ian Crocker: Redmond... He's fouled by Antonio Valencia. Free kick for Southampton.

Attacking down United's right side, the Saints earned an indirect free kick that looked promising for the tall players they had out there. When the referee saw everyone ready, the whistle was blown to order the free kick to be taken.

PEEP!

Ian Crocker: James Ward-Prowse will take...

The Southampton player launched the ball into United's penalty area, but the ball was cleared away by Matthias. Nevertheless, the loose ball remained in control of the Saints.

Ian Crocker: Armstrong… leaves it for Ward-Prowse.

As James Ward-Prowse took the ball, he spotted a teammate asking for the ball. It was the Southampton right-back making a run up on the opposite flank. In response, the pass went towards that player.

Ian Crocker: He spotted Cédric down the right-hand side.

Pushing up the attack, Cédric Soares was looking to make a pass towards a teammate. Then suddenly, the Southampton striker Manolo Gabbiadini was moving in the clear. Cédric Soares didn't need to ask twice when he sliced a quick ground pass destined towards the front of the Manchester United goal.

Ian Crocker: Cédric... Good pass towards Gabbiadini...

Taking advantage of one split second off the watch of the defenders in red, Manolo Gabbiadini took the shot across the goalkeeper and into the bottom corner to give the visitors a surprise lead.

Ian Crocker: Ohhh, it's IN! Manolo Gabbiadini has kicked off the New Year with an early goal. Within 5 minutes, it's: Manchester United 0-1 Southampton!

Watching the celebrating Southampton players with disgust, Nana couldn't believe what just happened. Nevertheless, she tried to rally her teammates alongside Pog.

"Come on, lads! The game has started." Pog said.

"Let's get back in there and grab the next one!" Nana added.

In the stands:

"That sucks." big Scottish midfielder Scott McTominay said.

"Yeah, everyone was surprised by that pass except the striker." Kakeru replied.

"You have to give credit to the passer." Scott said.

"It's only one goal. We have to pile up the pressure on them." Kakeru finished.

And piling up the pressure the Red Devils did. Following the surprise and shock of conceding the first goal, the home side pushed the action across the halfway line to do what they do best: finding gaps and then attack the goal.

In the 12th minute:

Ian Crocker: It's Lindelöf...

The Swedish defender launched the ball towards Nana, who then flicked the pass towards Antonio on the right flank. Finding no space to run forward with the ball, Antonio passed the ball back to Nana. The Little Witch then made a back pas towards Juan.

Ian Crocker: Mishima... linking up with Mata...

In a series of quick one-touch passes, the ball went from Nana to Juan, who then flicked the ball towards Anthony. The French forward chose to run a few more yards across the width of the pitch as a couple of Southampton defenders were blocking the way.

Ian Crocker: Into Martial...

Knowing that his run created some space behind him, Anthony made a drop pass towards Nana. The Little Witch was in a perfect position for a shot from outside the box.

Ian Crocker: Mishima... she can hit it...

When she arrived within 22 yards from goal, the Little Witch struck the ball hard and low. It first appeared that the shot would get past the Southampton goalkeeper at the near post. However, something unexpected happened.

Ian Crocker: Oh!!! Against both posts and back into the arms of Alex McCarthy! Incredible!

The ball went onto the post, then danced on the goal line, and then struck the opposite post before it was recovered by the grateful hands of the Saints' goalkeeper. Thousands of expected cheers turned into moans in an instant as the biggest stroke of luck thus far helped the visitors.

"Screw me sideways!" Nana cursed out loud with her hands on her head before she walked back into a defensive position.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"You gotta be joking me!" Noriko exclaimed.

"I was certain that would go in." Robert added.

"We all thought it was a foregone conclusion. Nana's shot was a very good one though." Harry replied.

"Yeah, it was a matter of millimeters. With some luck, that would have been a goal by now." Sayuri said.

"That's arguably the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen, but I only hope that will not come back to haunt us." Noriko finished.

The Red Devils were not done by a longshot in the first half. Looking to get the equalizing goal, the home team kept on pushing forward looking for every single gap there might be.

In the 20th minute:

Ian Crocker: Paul Pogba... finds Mishima ahead of him.

From just inside his own half, Pog passed the ball across the halfway line and towards Nana. Then she passed the ball into the run of her teammate Alexis. The Chilean managed to enter the Southampton penalty area, but he had nowhere to go with Cédric Soares in front of him.

Ian Crocker: into the run of Alexis Sánchez...

Alexis quickly saw Anthony standing inside the penalty area. The Chilean forward passed to his French teammate, who was quickly surrounded by 3 Southampton players. However, Anthony didn't panic as he made a 180-degree turn and then flicked the ball outside the penalty area. Pog was arriving in full stride to take the shot.

Ian Crocker: Martial... teasing up for POGBA!

The ball was going towards the bottom corner to Alex McCarthy's right, but the Southampton goalkeeper tipped the ball onto the post.

Ian Crocker: It's off the post!

The rebound was free for a second, which got Alexis to take a quick shot on goal. McCarthy made another save, but then the whistle was blown to call the play dead.

Ian Crocker: Saved by McCarthy, but the flag is up. Alexis Sánchez must have been offside when Paul Pogba took the shot. It was a great save by McCarthy with a little bit of good fortune as the ball was tipped onto the post and out.

The vast majority in the crowd could only utter moans of disappointment as they witnessed another great chance gone away.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"Oh, come on!" Noriko exclaimed.

"For God's sake!" Robert added.

"That was really close, and the build-up was good too." Sayuri said.

"So far, it looks like a carbon copy of the match at St. Mary's Stadium when our shots hit posts and goalkeepers so many times." Harry said.

"Yeah, and that was driving everyone mad." Robert said.

'We better score soon. Otherwise, frustration will keep on growing, and that would leave us vulnerable for mistakes.' Noriko thought.

Manchester United couldn't get the goal they were looking for, but they were definitely having most of the time on of the ball for several minutes. However, the Saints were still holding the line as well as they could as the Red Devils were launching more attacks.

In the 29th minute:

Ian Crocker: Lindelöf... to Valencia...

Controlling the action inside the Southampton half, the Manchester United players were passing the ball around. After Antonio received the ball from Victor, the Ecuadorian passed the ball towards Nana in the center of the park.

Ian Crocker: Mishima, who has dropped a little deeper to receive the pass...

Nana started moving ahead with the ball until she reached around the final third of the pitch. The Little Witch launched the ball to Anthony, who stood just a few yards in front of the Southampton penalty area. And suddenly, the Frenchman surprised everyone by flicking the ball ahead. Alexis was making the run towards the ball.

Ian Crocker: Martial's flick into the run of Sánchez...

Alexis tried to push his run to get a better shooting angle, but he was countered by Jack Stephens. However, an inadvertent touch got the ball rolling sideways and dangerously inside the penalty box. Juan was making a run towards the ball.

Ian Crocker: Mata trying to get there...

Juan attempted to poke the ball, but Alex McCarthy smothered the ball between his hands until the Spaniard in red had any chance of making something out of that lucky bounce.

Ian Crocker: It's smothered by McCarthy.

In the aftermath, Juan was cursing for not making that run a split second earlier. As Noriko predicted earlier, frustration was starting to have an effect on his teammates. That situation led to a dangerous lapse of concentration on a rare Southampton attack in the 35th minute:

Ian Crocker: The ball is cleared by Yoshida. Now Romeu... Redmond and Valencia are chasing.

Following a clearance by the Southampton defender Maya Yoshida, Oriol Romeu kicked a long ball deep in United's half and towards the touchline. Running for the ball were Luke Shaw and Southampton's winger Nathan Redmond. As the Saints' player won his position to fetch the ball, Luke tried to contain his opponent. However, Redmond turned Luke inside out, and started running forward.

Ian Crocker: Redmond... goes around Shaw with some pace...

"Come on! Stop him!" Noriko shouted as she saw the action unfold right in front of her position.

"Watch the player in the open!" Robert shouted as well.

Matthias also tried to prevent Redmond from either pass or shoot, but the Saints' English winger cut a pass across to his left and slightly behind. Southampton's Manolo Gabbiadini was not able to tip the ball in, but the ball arrived in the feet of another Southampton player.

Ian Crocker: Here's the chance for Stuart Armstrong. He's in some space...

Left wide open by the Manchester United defenders was Stuart Armstrong, who took a first touch before getting the shot ready. Realizing where the danger was, Antonio rushed towards Armstrong in a desperate attempt to prevent a shot. However, it was Nana who came in with a well-timed sliding tackle to clear out of danger.

Ian Crocker: What a tackle by Mishima! She has denied Stuart Armstrong a fantastic chance.

While the Manchester United players on the pitch congratulated Nana, the vast majority in the stands applauded her effort as well.

"Great tackle, Seven!" Kakeru exclaimed, up from his seat.

Somewhere else in the stands:

"Great effort! It's a good thing he didn't take the shot first time." Robert said.

"Yeah. Otherwise, there would have been no way she would have prevented the shot." Noriko replied.

"We think so much to her position as a playmaker that we forget how good she is defensively." Harry said.

"She's been cutting it against boys and men for years, Grandpa. She will always find a way to make her presence count at both ends." Noriko finished.

The last Southampton attack was a warning that cooled down United's ambitions for a few minutes. Nevertheless, the Red Devils started attacking again. Shortly before halftime, they had one more chance to put everyone back to square one.

In the 44th minute:

Ian Crocker: Shaw... it's towards Pogba.

After receiving a pass, Pog made a very quick turn to shake off his marker. Pog then made the dash towards the attacking zone. However, Southampton's defensive midfielder arrived in front of the Frenchman, forcing the latter to make a lateral pass for Nana.

Ian Crocker: Mishima... long ball towards Juan Mata...

Nana then launched a long diagonal ball inside the penalty area for Juan. Then the Spaniard attempted to bend his run into in a dangerous area. However, Southampton defender Matt Targett tackled the ball for it to roll beyond the byline, and thus conceded a corner kick. The Old Trafford crowd responded with applause and a roar in anticipation of what was about to come.

Ian Crocker: Corner for Manchester United. Is there a twist right before halftime?

PEEP!

Taking the corner kick, Nana sent the ball flying in a curve towards the pack of players. Arriving first and above anybody else was Pog. However, the French midfielder couldn't put make as much of a clean contact as he would have wished.

Ian Crocker: Paul POGBA! Goes high and wide! It's a goal kick.

Pog slapped the ground in disappointment before he gave Nana the thumbs-up sign.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"Another miss." Noriko said out loud.

"We're almost at halftime now. It's a shame that we missed those chances." Robert added.

"We could have been ahead, but the break might be welcome for our lads to restart with a fresh state of mind." Robert said.

"Indeed. I guess we all need to relax a little bit before they have another go." Noriko said before she switched to her thoughts. 'Still, it will be quite a mentally challenging test. Not only Southampton can defend, but they can also be dangerous on the counterattack if we're not careful.'

Moments later, the referee blew the halftime whistle. The visiting team was quite satisfied to be in the lead, but the Saints knew they had to endure another wave of powerful attacks in the next 45 minutes of play. On the other hand, United were disappointed of not being at least on equal terms on the scoreboard, but the Red Devils were nowhere near giving up on the result.

Kakeru gave a call on Noriko's smartphone to have her reaction to the first half.

"Yes, Kakeru?"

"So far, it's not the expected scenario for the first match of the New Year. What do you make of this?" Kakeru asked.

"It is quite frustrating that luck has not been on our side so far. It shares a lot of similarities with the last time you guys faced Southampton." Noriko replied.

"Yeah, we had to keep coming back and coming back to snatch the draw in the 77th minute back then at St. Mary's. But we missed so many chances in that match; it's ridiculous, Noriko." Kakeru said.

"Good thing Nana saved our bacon when they had the chance to go up by 2. That would have been the stuff of nightmares."

"Right now, it's about hitting them quick and hard before our problem gets bigger."

"Yes, Kakeru. The match is getting me and my folks a little nervy." Noriko said.

"If you're already on edge, you can imagine how I feel right now." Kakeru replied.

"Still, I'll manage. After all, I have seen lots of football and comebacks before. A lot can happen in 45 minutes."

"Spot on, Noriko. It happened so often before, and it can still happen again." Kakeru said.

"I'll let you go for now. Hopefully, we'll end up as the happy ones."

"Yeah. Talk to you later, Noriko." Kakeru finished the conversation.

"Who is that?" Scott asked.

"Just a friend from medical school who was sharing impressions on the match." Kakeru replied.

"Ah, OK." Scott finished.

Kakeru was making sure not to say one word about Noriko or about his relationship with Yusuke to any of his teammates at that moment. However, that was the least of his worries as he was wishing his team to avoid going into a deeper hole in the Premier League title race because of one bad result.


During halftime, Andrew gave his instructions to his players. Above anything else, he instructed his attack-minded players to attack the Southampton goal with more incisiveness while the defensive-minded players should be ready to provide attacking support at any moment. When the second half started, it only took a little less than 5 minutes for the Red Devils to seriously threaten Alex McCarthy's goal.

Ian Crocker: Shaw with the throw to Sánchez.

With the action taken deep in Southampton territory, Alexis passed the ball backwards to Pog. Everyone wearing yellow and blue shirts expected Pog to return the pass to Alexis, who was running towards the Southampton penalty area. However, the French midfielder had another idea when he saw Luke making a run forward by the touchline as well.

Ian Crocker: Pogba... to Shaw...

Just as Luke received the pass, he immediately flicked it forward and into the run of Anthony. The French forward was onside as he was slipping between Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida. Only the Southampton goalkeeper had to be beaten.

Ian Crocker: ...towards Martial! Great save by McCarthy!

Fortunately for Southampton, Alex McCarthy rushed quickly enough to deny Anthony from having a good shot on goal. Then the rebound was pushed outside of the penalty area. However, Nana was in a position to take a shot as well.

Ian Crocker: Mishima with the shot! Blocked by Yoshida...

Nana's shot was blocked, but another Southampton defender was fumbling on the rebound. As a result, Nana rushed in to re-take the ball inside the penalty area.

Ian Crocker: Mishima gets it again...

Nana rushed forward, but quickly found herself with a very acute shooting angle. Nevertheless, she took the shot, of which Alex McCarthy deflected away to concede a corner kick.

Ian Crocker: Terrific save by McCarthy! It's a corner.

"What does it take to beat him?" Nana shouted out loud.

"Bien essayé (Nice try), Witch." Anthony cheered Nana up as best as he could.

Having heard her teammate, Nana gave a thumbs-up sign before she ran towards the corner flag to take the next kick. United brought 5 players inside the penalty area to attack McCarthy's goal.

PEEP!

Nana struck a curving ball that was aimed at the far post. Matthias was there to attack the ball.

Ian Crocker: Mishima floats it in towards Köhler...

Matthias and a Southampton defender jumped at the same ball, but the German got slightly ahead. The bouncing ball then barely entered a dangerous area before Maya Yoshida headed the ball ahead and out of the penalty area. However, Nemanja was there to recover the loose ball.

Ian Crocker: Away by Yoshida... but here's Nemanja Matić!

Without any hesitation, Nemanja took the shot as he saw how disorganized the Southampton defenders were for a split second. However, the shot flew just wide to the top corner of the goal and into the Stretford End, much to the despair of 72,000+ Manchester United supporters inside Old Trafford.

Ian Crocker: Nearly made it 1-1. Even he cannot believe it.

Nemanja put his hands on his head in disbelief when he saw his shot swirl just by the post. Meanwhile, Andrew Butler covered his face in despair as he saw the action from his technical area.

In the stands:

"Oh man! How closer can it get after those 2 chances?" Noriko said out loud.

"Their goalkeeper did well on the first chance by closing down on Martial. The second shot needed to be inch-perfect, but Nana couldn't get it done." Harry said.

"In any case, it's nice to see the lads on the front foot already. It's a matter of pushing forward while maintaining control at the same time." Robert replied.

"You used the right word, Dad: control. If we want to have every chance of coming back, we also have to be sure they don't have a crack at our goal when it comes down to it." Noriko said.

"Attack is the best form of defence." Sayuri said.

"Exactly." Robert finished.

And Sayuri was right. Only a few minutes later, United came back with another direct threat on the Southampton goal.

In the 54th minute:

Ian Crocker: Here's Lindelöf. He finds Sánchez...

Alexis made the run on the right wing to recover the ball before Cédric Soares. Once the Armenian took the ball next to the touchline, he had to run backwards so he could find a teammate to pass the ball to. Then Pog arrived in a position to receive the pass.

Ian Crocker: Pogba. He gets past Højbjerg...

Pog made a run past the Southampton captain, and then everyone expected a shot coming up. Instead, the French midfielder made a chip pass ahead towards Nana. The Little Witch was making a sneaky run behind the Southampton defenders.

Ian Crocker: It's a fantastic ball for MISHIMA!

In her run, Nana synchronized the moment the ball arrived at the right height from behind her to swing a left-footed volley shot on the turn. Unfortunately, Nana's spectacular effort was foiled by the jumping Alex McCarthy.

Ian Crocker: And Alex McCarthy makes an extraordinary save!

The ball was then cleared out of bounds by the nearest Southampton defender. No one in red could believe what just happened when it almost certain that the beloved Little Witch would make her mark with an epic goal.

"Good effort, Mishima. Still, it's our day today." Maya Yoshida said.

"We still have 36 minutes to get something, Yoshida. We are far from done here." Nana replied.

"Bravado and empty promises will get you nowhere." Maya finished.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"That was a great attempt, Seven! Keep on going!" Kakeru applauded.

"That was a very difficult move to pull off with the ball arriving behind her, but it was a good shot." Scott said.

"We have to think about adding fresh players in the side now. It's one thing to play well, but we need to keep the pressure on them." Kakeru said.

"I'm sure the Boss already has a plan." Scott replied before everyone took a glance at the Manchester United bench a few rows lower, and saw 3 players going towards the touchlines to start warming up.

'Big Rom and Jesse are warming up. That probably means Juan will go off for sure. Either Alexis or Anthony will come off as well.' Kakeru thought.

At that moment in the second half, Southampton did not push that much on the attack as they tried to weather the storm as much as they could. However, the Southampton manager then ordered his players to play a little more up tempo. The Saints were looking to take the slightest opportunity they could find.

In the 61st minute:

Ian Crocker: It's Højbjerg... He makes the run, but can't find an opening.

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg made a run for several yards into the Manchester United half, but then was forced to retreat a little when Pog was putting defensive pressure on him. As a result, the ball was passed on to Maya Yoshida.

Ian Crocker: Yoshida... Romeu... It's back to Højbjerg.

After Maya passed the ball to his captain, the latter looked for someone to pass the ball to. Finally, the Southampton captain made a through pass for Manolo Gabbiadini.

Ian Crocker: Good pass for GABBIADINI!

The Italian striker immediately kicked the ball into the goal. However, the celebrations were cut short by the referee who saw the linesman's flag up. The Southampton striker was positioned just beyond the last Manchester United defender when the pass was made.

Ian Crocker: Flag up against Gabbiadini. It was a great ball by Højbjerg, but Gabbiadini was offside.

There was a collective sigh of relief inside Old Trafford. The margin was still one goal, but the home side was fortunate it wasn't doubled.

"Damn! That was too close." Robert exclaimed.

"Good thing Köhler saw the play unfold. He called the defenders to push the offside trap forward when he saw Gabbiadini in the area." Noriko said.

"Valencia had to run fast to make that trap work. If he was a split second late, the Southampton striker would have been onside." Harry remarked.

"I know. It must have been offside only by a few inches." Noriko replied.

"United will need a pair of fresh legs coming on soon." Sayuri said.

"If I were Butler, I'd replace Juan Mata and Alexis Sánchez with Jesse Lingard and Romelu Lukaku. We need more energy on the right wing, and we need the big guy in the middle." Noriko finished.

And Noriko was spot on. Only less than 4 minutes later, Romelu and Jesse came on to replace Alexis and Juan. At the same time, Anthony was shifted to his more familiar position on the left. As for Southampton, they replaced Nathan Redmond and Manolo Gabbiadini with veteran Irish forward Shane Long and English striker Charlie Austin in the 70th minute. Although the Southampton substitutions looked to be to be one-on-one changes at specific positions, the Saints were clearly looking to only protect the lead.

In the 74th minute:

Ian Crocker: Paul Pogba... Mishima...

Pog passed the ball to Nana, who quickly saw Oriol Romeu facing her. The Little Witch moved a few yards ahead, but Romeu held the line ahead of her. With no way to go ahead, Nana passed the ball towards Anthony on the right wing.

Ian Crocker: Here's Martial...

Anthony attempted to dribble his way past Cédric Soares, but then chose to pass the ball to Romelu. The big Belgian quickly saw in a split second that Anthony was running towards the goal. Following his instinct, Romelu flicked the ball into Anthony's run to complete a give-and-go.

Ian Crocker: Lukaku... It's Martial again!

As Anthony found himself all alone with the Southampton goalkeeper in the penalty area, The Frenchman took a quick shot, but it was steered away by Alex McCarthy. At the very same time to shot was taken, Maya Yoshida came in with a desperate tackle that took Anthony down.

Ian Crocker: McCarthy foils him again with a crucial save!

Despite the angry shouts of thousands of Manchester United supporters, the referee let the play go on instead of calling a penalty. Meanwhile, an attempted clearance from the Southampton defenders was intercepted by Nemanja, who then tried to launch the ball forward. But again, the ball was cleared towards the halfway line the pitch where Matthias kicked the ball ahead towards Nemanja again.

Ian Crocker: Matić... Anthony Martial is still down in the Southampton penalty area.

Nemanja then passed the ball towards Nana to his right. Then Nana passed it to Pog. Following a quick give-and-go with Nana, Pog took the shot. However, the ball was caught by Alex McCarthy, which prompted the referee to blow his whistle when he saw Anthony still lying down on the ground.

Ian Crocker: Now Martial can receive some medical attention.

While some Manchester United players protested against the referee as to why a penalty area was not awarded, Nana was the first to check on Anthony's status before the Manchester United physio both arrived on the scene.

"Have you seen what happened?" the physio asked Nana.

"It was a late tackle by Yoshida. The ankle took the hit, so be careful with it." Nana replied.

"I'll take care of this." the physio said.

While the Manchester United physio took a look at the injury, Nana glared into Maya's eyes.

"What?" Maya asked.

"That was reckless, and you know it. You're lucky if anything." Nana replied.

"I was trying to do my job. Besides, I already told you this is our lucky day."

"At the end of this match, I will make sure you will be the one with a long face. Mark my words." Nana was absolutely serious. There were no friendly terms between the 2 Japanese opponents at that moment.

Despite the strong hit he took on the ankle, Anthony was able to carry on after he shook off the pain on the touchlines. From that moment forward, the home supporters were growing more and more restless as the visitors still held the one-goal advantage. In response, the Red Devils kept on pushing forward.

In the 80th minute:

Ian Crocker: Here's Matić... to Pogba...

After receiving a pass from Nemanja, Pog dribbled the ball past an opponent before making a little run forward into the Southampton half. The Frenchman then found Romelu in a position to receive a pass.

Ian Crocker: Lukaku... Mishima...

Showing his back to the goal, Romelu made a pass back towards Nana, who then put the ball into Antonio's run. United's Ecuadorian right-back only had one thing in mind: to cross the ball into the Southampton penalty area.

Ian Crocker: A cross by Valencia...

As players from both sides looked to get first to that aerial ball, everyone expected Pog to try having a shot. However, the Frenchman surprised everyone by letting the ball bounce off his head and backwards for a teammate to take a shot.

Ian Crocker: Pogba... into MISHIMA!

As the ball bounced towards the penalty spot, Nana unleashed an immediate strike. Unfortunately, the shot went off a Southampton player who jumped in the way. As a result, it was a corner kick for the Red Devils.

"F***!" Nana cursed out loud while throwing a forward punch in the air in frustration.

"Come on, Nana! Get a grip. We have a corner kick." Pog said.

Almost right away, Nana ran towards the corner flag where a ball boy gave her the ball. At the same time, a number of players in red entered the Southampton penalty area on the ready to attack.

Ian Crocker: Mishima with the corner.

On the referee's signal, Nana kicked an aerial ball towards the pack of players inside the box. However, the ball was cleared away by a Southampton player before it was retrieved in the middle of the pitch by Victor Lindelöf.

Ian Crocker: Lindelöf... finds Matić.

With the need to keep the pressure on, Nemanja immediately sent a long ball towards Nana, who was still lurking on the wing after the corner kick. With plenty of space to pick a pass, the Little Witch cut a low through pass that rolled quickly towards the far post.

Ian Crocker: Well taken by Mishima. She delivers a dangerous cross...

It appeared that Matthias was going to score as he was winning the foot race for the ball. However, Alex McCarthy came to the rescue for the Saints once again by stopping the shot from point blank.

Ian Crocker: McCarthy makes a fantastic save on Köhler!

While all spectators were still shocked by the glorious opportunity that went unconverted, the play continued with Matt Targett attempting to start a counterattack. However, Antonio Valencia managed to tackle the ball out of bounds to stop the rush immediately.

Ian Crocker: Cleared away by Valencia. But how close was that for Manchester United?

Meanwhile in the stands:

"Come on, man!" Noriko shouted in despair.

"It's really frustrating." Sayuri said.

"I know, Honey. It's not like they're not trying, but it somehow just doesn't want to go in." Robert replied.

"Looks like Butler is preparing to send Ashley Young in the match." Noriko said. Ashley was already taking his tracksuit off.

"If I were to guess, Antonio Valencia would come off. He just came back from injury, but he doesn't offer much on the attack these days anyway." Robert said.

"I've never been much of a fan of Ashley Young, but I agree he can do better than Tony V." Noriko replied.

On the next whistle, Andrew indeed replaced Antonio with veteran Englishman Ashley Young, who assumed the captaincy for the rest of the match. A few minutes later, the Southampton manager also replaced Stuart Armstrong with Gabonese midfielder Mario Lemina to ensure enough presence in deeper midfield to support the defenders. It was becoming increasingly more difficult for the Red Devils to find the gap that would be converted into a goal. However, as it is often known with Manchester United, it is never over until the fat lady sings.

In the 87th minute:

Ian Crocker: Southampton have a throw-in.

From the Saints' own half, Cédric Soares took the throw-in towards his teammate Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who then passed the ball towards Shane Long. On the move inside the Manchester United half, the Irishman then attempted to pass the ball forward to Charlie Austin. However, the ball was intercepted by Matthias.

Ian Crocker: Towards Austin, but it's intercepted by Köhler.

Matthias then passed the ball towards Victor, who then passed the ball towards Nana to start an attack.

Ian Crocker: Lindelöf for Mishima...

Spotting the players running ahead, Nana unleashed a long aerial ball forward for Romelu. Although Romelu was jumping between Cédric Soares and Maya Yoshida a few yards outside of the penalty area, the Belgian striker pulled a trick out of his bag by heading the ball to his right and into Jesse's run.

Ian Crocker: It goes towards Lukaku and... ONSIDE!

The Southampton defenders expected an offside call, but it never came as Jesse dashed on his own towards the Saints' goal with a perfectly timed run. With a cool head, the Englishman shot the ball past Alex McCarthy and into the back of the net. Old Trafford finally had something to celebrate.

Ian Crocker: JESSE LINGARD! With a little more than 3 minutes go on the clock, Manchester United have finally equalized! It's 1-1!

Jesse picked the ball up, and ran towards the center circle to get the quick restart. At the same time, Andrew ordered his players to all get across the halfway line ASAP.

"Well done, Jess." Nana gave Jesse a quick high-five handshake on the way back.

"Thanks. Let's win this thing."

'A little more than 3 minutes and stoppages left. We can do this. We have to do this.' Nana thought.

In the stands:

"Great play by Rom there to feed Jess." Scott said.

"It started with Nana. That was just a perfect tic-tac-toe play between the 3 players." Kakeru replied.

"It's the kind of match where we needed something crazy to work, and it's not finished yet." Scott said.

"Far from it. We can still win this." Kakeru finished.

Having finally cracked Southampton's resistance, the Red Devils were smelling blood. With the Old Trafford crowd roaring in full force, everyone expected at least one last incisive attack from the home side to earn the remaining 2 points that would maintain the gap to 6 with Arsenal. Finally, the action entered stoppage time.

Alan Keegan: The referee has indicated a minimum of 4 minutes of added time.

Manchester United laid a siege on the Southampton goal. The Saints almost pulled all of their players into deep defensive positions while the Red Devils were desperately looking for the crack in the armor.

Ian Crocker: Shaw's cross... It's cleared by Yoshida.

Luke attempted a long cross towards a teammate at the far post, but the ball was cleared away by Maya Yoshida. It went only as far as out as to Nemanja, who then had to deal with another Southampton player right in front of him.

Ian Crocker: Matić... Lingard...

With no direct option, Nemanja passed the ball to Jesse. The English winger tried to outflank the Southampton defence, but to no avail. Jesse was forced to make a drop pass towards Nana, who then skipped past a Southampton midfielder before she came up against Maya just inside the Southampton penalty area.

Ian Crocker: Here's Mishima against Yoshida.

"Come on, Mishima." Maya challenged Nana.

'It won't be easy, but I have to try.' Nana thought

Finding the perfect moment after slowly closing the gap down with her opponent, Nana then first appeared to attempt a roulette to move past the Southampton defender through the inside. But as the defender shifted his body to block Nana's move, she made a quick second turn towards the outside.

"Witch Turn!" Kakeru exclaimed from the stands.

Ian Crocker: Great turn by Mishima...

With the defender shaken off her, Nana ran a few yards ahead until she was close to the byline. Once Nana found the right angle, she launched a quick ground pass that was rolling towards the edge of the 6-yard box. At the end of the pass, Romelu used his massive frame to get just ahead of Jack Stephens with the toe poke. With a clean deflection, Romelu sent the ball into the top corner of the goal to send Old Trafford into total pandemonium.

Ian Crocker: LUKAKUUUU!!! They've done it!! Romelu Lukaku answers the United S.O.S. – save our season. They are still in the title race! And yet again, it's a case of better late than never for Andrew Butler's team.

"Great pass, Witch! A damn great pass!" Romelu pointed towards Nana to acknowledge the quality of the final pass.

"Je savais que tu pouvais le faire (I knew you could do it), Rom! WOO HOO!" Nana came first to mug Romelu before their other teammates arrived to celebrate.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"Great goal, Lukaku! Well done, Nana!" Noriko exclaimed.

"She finally beat the hurdle that Southampton posed to her." Sayuri said.

"That turn was pure magic. It never gets old." Robert added.

"If we can hold on, it sets up well for the next League match in 2 weeks." Harry said.

"I know. I'm sure we will win, and we will have that big match." Noriko replied.

From that moment forward, Southampton had nothing left in the tank to try spoiling the New Year party at Old Trafford. The final minutes of injury time winded down with little action to talk about, and the final whistle came as the long-awaited sound of relief that sparked loud cheers from everywhere except for the Southwest corner of the stadium.

PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEP!!!

Ian Crocker: It's over! Manchester United and Andrew Butler are not willing to go into the night just yet. For so long, it appeared that Southampton would get away with the 3 points after a courageous performance and a goal from Manolo Gabbiadini in the 5th minute. Romelu Lukaku provided the assist on Jesse Lingard's equalizing goal with less than 4 minutes to go. That was before Lukaku scored the winner in stoppage time at Old Trafford on a great feed by Nana Mishima. United still have to work hard to get closer to Arsenal and Manchester City, but they are not going down without a fight. After a fierce encounter on New Year's Day, it finished: Manchester United 2-1 Southampton.

After the Manchester United players celebrated among themselves for a short moment, they went to shake hands sportingly with the Southampton players. Nana first shook hands with Maya Yoshida.

"Good game, Yoshida." Nana said.

"I really have to hand it to you. You made a promise, and you held true to your word." Maya replied.

"What do you mean? It's Lukaku who scored the winning goal."

"Well, you were the one who pulled that move before you found Lukaku in a position where I couldn't stop him. You created that goal, and I eat the dust. You deserve the plaudits." Maya said.

"Well, thank you." Nana replied. "Good luck at the Asian Cup."

"Thanks. Even without Aizawa, we'll fight hard to get our trophy back to Japan." Maya finished.

After a few more handshakes, the Manchester United players walked towards the exit tunnel while showing their appreciation to the fans' support. Finally, the players could breathe a little following a perfect 3-0-0 record in the hectic festive period. Although there were more battles to come, the players earned the right to relax for the rest of that day, the first of the New Year.


West Didsbury, Manchester, UK

6:45 PM GMT (10:45 PM Abu Dhabi time)

Less than 2 hours after the end of the match, Kakeru, Nana, and Noriko were back at their place. The first thing they wanted to do was to have a chat with Yusuke on Skype. With a difference of 4 hours between the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, it was still a decent time to make the call.

"Hi guys!" Yusuke greeted first.

"Hi Yusuke!" Kakeru, Nana, and Noriko greeted back altogether.

"Congratulations with the win! I was watching the match on TV here, and I don't think I've ever been happier to see Nana pull that Witch Turn in a match." Yusuke said.

"Yeah, I'm glad it worked on Maya Yoshida, whom I greatly respect as a player for our country." Nana replied.

"And a great assist on Big Rom's goal as well." Yusuke said.

"As timely as you like." Kakeru replied.

"How do you feel, Noriko?" Yusuke asked. "It must have been a rollercoaster of emotions inside Old Trafford."

"It was. The crowd was getting very frustrated, and then the equalizing goal got everyone alive again. After that, the place went nuts when we scored in injury time." Noriko replied before she let out a sigh. "I needed a good breather after the match."

"I can only imagine." Yusuke said.

"That's why the Premier League is the best league for drama. Anybody can come up with something out of nowhere, and then change the narrative in the match." Noriko replied.

"No disrespect to the Premier League, but I have known that feeling in the J-League too." Yusuke said.

"You're right, Yusuke. The J-League is fiercely competitive." Kakeru replied.

"Very much. One year, a club can become champion before it gets involved in a battle against relegation on the next. Any team in Japan can beat anybody on their day, and there are no guarantees in title races." Nana added.

"It's great that you told me about it. I need to pay attention to the J-League a lot more soon." Noriko said.

"It's very exciting. On the other end, I don't think there will be much excitement considering who you'll play against on next Saturday." Yusuke replied.

"What did you say?" Noriko asked. In front of the webcam, her face turned into frowns. "Mind your words there."

"What? I was just... I mean it's Aston Villa, right? They are sitting in mid-table out of 24 teams in the Championship." Yusuke replied. He didn't understand what got into Noriko.

"That's a common mistake non-British players sometimes make in their first season in England." Kakeru said.

"What do you mean?" Yusuke asked.

"It's the FA Cup. In the FA Cup, any team is potentially dangerous." Noriko replied.

"Tell me more about it, Noriko. Seriously, what is it that I should know about?" Yusuke wanted a genuine heads-up on the topic.

"The FA Cup is nothing like any other cup competition you've played before. It's all blood and thunder out there. For the lower clubs, facing a team like United could be the biggest match of the season for them. They would love nothing less than beat us because they don't expect anything in their domestic season anymore." Noriko said.

"When we won the FA Cup in 2016, we had to go through some tough matches. We needed a late penalty to beat a team from 2 divisions below. We had to go into hostile territory to beat West Ham in a replay of the quarterfinals after we were held to a 1-1 draw against them at Old Trafford. In the semi-final against Everton, Anthony Martial scored the winner in injury time. In the final, Crystal Palace played a lot better than they usually do in the League, and it took us extra time to win the Cup." Kakeru added.

"Just last year's FA Cup run alone, we won most of our matches 2-0, and then we had to come back from behind against Tottenham to get into the final. Finally, we lost the final against Chelsea on a silly foul leading to a penalty kick. Nothing is ever as easy as it looks in the FA Cup. Passion, drama, upsets, heroism, glory... it has everything. Many players had great careers in England without winning it once." Nana said.

"I... I didn't know that." Yusuke asked.

"The title of the manga Giant Killing comes from the concept that an underdog beats a strong favorite in sports. The main character started as the manager of an English amateur club, and then had success by taking that team to the 4th round proper of the FA Cup before he went back to Japan to coach East Tokyo United. There are plenty of upsets and stories like that in the FA Cup." Noriko replied.

"Well, I'm really sorry for what I said earlier. I take that back." Yusuke apologized.

"Apology accepted." Noriko gave Yusuke her best smile again from the other side of the Skype conversation.

"We all have to focus first on Aston Villa. There will be plenty of time to think about other matches after that." Kakeru said. "I really look forward to get myself fit enough to get back in the squad as soon as possible."

"Yeah. Hopefully, you will be able to play minutes somewhere before a full return in the Premier League." Yusuke said.

"We will see how Kakeru does. If not a few minutes against Villa, he'd still have the match with the U23 team to recondition himself." Noriko replied.

"Yep. I will take it one day at the time and see how it goes." Kakeru added.

"If I were to make a prediction, I think he can make it against the Fulham U23 team on the 11th, which would set up nicely for the match against Newcastle on the 14th. Knowing Kakeru, I believe he can play in both matches." Nana said.

"If it works, then that would be great. Make sure to come out strong, Kakeru." Yusuke said.

"Sure." Kakeru replied.

"I'll let you go now. I need a good night of sleep for tonight. Tomorrow, I'll make a quick stop in Dubai and enjoy the famous Ottoman steak at Salt Bae's before the training camp begins." Yusuke said.

"That sounds great. Make sure to sprinkle the salt like he does." Noriko replied.

Yusuke laughed. "I will be in another viral video involving the chef, but only this once in a lifetime. I promise. Don't miss Japan's first game against Turkmenistan in 8 days."

"We won't miss it. We'll call you again soon." Kakeru said.

"OK! Good night in England!"

"Good night!" Kakeru, Nana, and Noriko replied to Yusuke before the long-distance conversation on Skype ended.

"So, what's on for tonight?" Kakeru asked.

"I thought about making a big Japanese hot pot if we defeated Southampton. Now that it is done, I'm sure we can all enjoy it now." Noriko replied.

"Oden... Isn't that one of your favorite foods?" Nana asked Noriko.

"One of the 2 dishes I just cannot resist."

"Sounds like a great idea. I'm in for the cooking." Kakeru said.

"Let's cook it then." Nana said.

"The New Year starts very well for sure." Kakeru finished.

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